A Prisoner in Ceylon- The Captive Englishman About the Island and Its People

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By Nirupama Menon RaoGreetings, readers! I am back after a considerable interval, being preoccupied with several matters of an urgency I could not avoid or postpone. Thank you for bearing with me. I hope you have been well as we negotiate our earthly pathways through this blight—this pandemic—whose proportions could not even have been dreamed of two years ago. Stay courageous, and journey on. This darkness cannot last.

The book I have taken up today is one about Ceylon—Sri Lanka—India’s neighbor across the Palk Straits—once joined with India geographically, but now separated by just a few nautical miles of sea. In many ways, the destinies of these two countries have been intertwined—together with ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures. The epithet ‘shared history’ applies powerfully here.

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In seventeenth-century English, the title of our book reads, ‘A Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon in the East-Indies’. It was published in 1681, the edition that is on my desk as I write these words. The author was Robert Knox, who announces on the title page, that he, the writer, was in ‘Disconsolate Captivity’ in Ceylon for twenty years. That does conjure up images of dungeons and no, not dragons, but elephants certainly. One of the enduring images I have of Sri Lanka, having lived there for some time, was the memory of groups of wild elephants roaming the central part of the island, seen from the sky as we overflew these areas on a helicopter with the Sri Lankan Air Force from Colombo to Trincomalee on the east coast in a time of civil war.

he Project Gutenberg EBook of An Historical Relation Of The Island Ceylon In The East Indies, by Robert Knox

Knox set out to write this account at the request of his friends and acquaintances who were no doubt curious about this strange and distant land of Ceylon. That, by this story he wrote, Knox acquired a popular following can be surmised from a ‘blurb’ at the beginning of the book from the famous architect Christopher Wren who writes on 8 August 1681 that having perused Knox’s story, which he believed was written with ‘great Truth and Integrity’ about a’a People and Country little known to us’, he had concluded that ‘it may give great Satisfaction to the Curious’ and be well worth its publication. (Notice how all nouns start with capitals in this older English ).

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Knox divides his story into four parts. He begins with an account of the ‘Country and Products of it.’ The second part concerns ‘the King and his Government.’ The third concerns the ‘Inhabitants, and their Religion and Customs’, and the last concerns ‘our Surprize (as spelled), Detainment and Escape’.

There is a beautiful map of Ceylon at the beginning of the book with the cartouche on the left proclaiming that this is ‘A New Map of the Kingdom of Candy (Kandy) & Uda (Uva) in the Island of Ceylon’. Notice at the bottom right there is a mention of measurements in ‘English and French miles’, ‘Spanish miles’ and ‘Dutch miles’. The map also mentions the extent of the dominions of the King of Kandy or Uva, the areas under Dutch control, and the northern part of the island, the Jaffna Peninsula (Jaffna is mentioned as Jafnipatan) and the Vanni being called the ‘Coylot Wanni Country’. The author claims that he has drawn this map with as much ‘truth and exactness’ as possible since not much was known about the ‘Inland Country’ of the island, ‘which is as yet a hidden land’ as he terms it.

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It is interesting how a greater part of the book, although printed, appears to be a facsimile of the author’s own handwriting, a very neat and orderly calligraphy indeed.

UK: Robert Knox (1641-1720) was an English sea captain in the service of the British East India Company held captive in Ceylon from 1660-1679.

Knox describes the island as ‘full of Hills, but exceedingly well watered there being many pure and clear Rivers running through them.’ The chief of these rivers, the ‘Mavelaganga’ (Mahaveli Ganga) is described as deep with no bridges built over it, as ‘the King cares not to make his Country safe to travel, but desires to keep it intricate.’ The Adam’s Peak- that prominent mountain-top in the Central Highlands of the island- from where this river has its source – is described as ‘a Hill, supposed to be the highest on this Island, called in the Chingulay (Sinhalese) Language, Hamalell; but by the Portuguez and the European Nations, Adam’s Peak. It is sharp like a Sugar-loaf, and on the Top, a Flat Stone with the print of a foot like a man on it, but far bigger, being about two foot long.’

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Kandy or Candy is described as the foremost city on the island, ‘the Chief or Metropolitical City of the whole Island’ although the King had left the city some twenty years previously to escape Portuguese depredations, and had not returned. Therefore, it was a ‘city quite gone to decay.’ A far cry from today.

I thought I should mention Knox’s fascination with the ‘Tallipot’ (Talipot) tree – see picture below. One single leaf, as he describes it, is enough to ‘cover some fifteen or twenty men, and keep them dry when it rains.’ The tree bears fruit only in the last year of its life, and the people are described as cutting it down because of the strong smell of its blossoms ‘annoying’ them. But the tree is also a ‘Pith’ within which ‘is very good to eat’ and the native population is said to ‘beat it in Mortars to Flower (flour), and bake Cakes or it; which tast (taste) much like to white bread.’)

Ceylon is described also as a country famed for its elephants ‘far above any in India’.

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There is a lengthy description of the King of Kandy, his fondness for meeting Ambassadors and holding court in their presence – oddly, there is no mention of the sacred Temple of the Tooth which is what the city is most famed for. The famous festival of the Perahera is referenced as a ‘solemn Feast and general Meeting’, the greatest Perahera being performed in the town of Kandy, although similar such festivals were ‘observed in divers (sp) other Cities and Towns of the Land.’

The Island

The diet of the people is described as mainly vegetarian, and ‘if they have but Rice and Salt in their house, they reckon they want for nothing. For with a few green leaves and the juice of a Lemmon with Pepper and Salt, they will make a hearty meal.’ The beef was not eaten and considered ‘abominable’ and other ‘Flesh and Fish is somewhat scarce.’ A lot is said about the thriftiness of the people —‘to be a niggard and sparing in diet’ is considered a virtue, with credit being accorded for the fact that ‘they can fare hard and suffer hunger, which they say, Soldiers ought to be able to endure.’ Of interest is also the observation that it was a common custom ‘with all sorts of People, to borrow Apparel or Jewels to wear when they go abroad, which being so customary is no shame nor disgrace to them, neither do they go about to conceal it.’

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When it comes to mourning the dead, here is what Knox has to say,

‘Their manner of mourning for the dead is, that all the Women that are present do lose their hair, and let it hang down, and with their two hands together behind their heads do make a hideous noise, crying and roaring as loud as they can, much praying and extolling the Virtues of the deceased, tho there were none in him; lamenting their woeful condition to live without him….These women are of a very strong courageous (sp) spirit, taking nothing very much to heart, mourning more for fashion than affection, never overwhelmed neither with grief or love. And when their husbands are dead, all their care is where to get others, which they cannot long be without.’

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Knox’s descriptions of those of the inhabitants of the island that he calls ‘civilized’ are interesting. He calls them a ‘people proper and very well-favored, beyond all people that I have seen in India’, ‘very active and nimble in their Limbs’, ‘crafty and treacherous’ with a manner of speaking that is ‘very smooth and courteous’, ‘very vigilant and wakeful, sufficed with very little sleep, very hardy both for diet and weather, very proud and self-conceited.’ He distinguishes between the ‘Inhabitants of the Mountains and the Low-lands’ calling the latter ‘kind, pitiful, helpful, honest and plain’ while those of the Up-lands ‘are ill-natured, false, unkind, though outwardly fair and seemingly courteous’.

An Historical Relation Of The Island Ceylon In The East Indies

His words about the women are noteworthy. He says they are stately in their gait and behavior, very thrifty- it being a disgrace to them to be prodigal, and their Pride &Glory to be accounted near and saving.’ They appeared to enjoy considerable equality with men, ‘for the greatest Ladies in the land will frequently talk and discourse with any Men they please, although their Husbands be in their presence.’

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Knox devotes a section of his book to describing his ‘Captivity’ on the island for twenty years—there is a theory that his account inspired Daniel Defoe in the writing of Robinson Crusoe—and his escape from the highlands of Uva northward across the region inhabited by the Tamil-speaking people, who he calls the ‘Malabars’— to Mannar and then Colombo. It was an adventure-filled escape, amid ‘Malabars’, tigers, and elephants, surrounded by dense forest and occasional encounters with forest people. All this provided sufficient grist for the account he wrote of his stay in Ceylon for an eager audience in his native England. In this he had begun a tradition of travel accounts liberally laced with exaggerated descriptions of the places and people he had encountered, thus building an exotic, ‘imaginary’ land for his readers, in the tradition of the white man’s description of distant places far removed from the Western definitions of ‘civilization’, faith and custom. A new genre of embellished, often florid writing that conjured up visions of lands ripe for the taking and ultimately, empire-building and in the name of ‘divinely’ ordained ‘civilizing’ mission had been born.

Curated By Leen Hamade and Compiled By Humra Kidwai

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