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Robert Knox:  Ancient Ceylon's most famous British captive 

(@Gamini Punchihewa/Sunday Times)

On a historic quest

Robert Knox, Snr. and his son Robert Knox, Jnr. with their merry band of sailors boarded the ship 'Anne' in London on January 21, 1658. They were to sail on trade missions to East Indies under the British East India Company. 

After a voyage of about one year and nine months, they encountered stormy weather along the Coromandel Coast and Bay of Bengal. The ship's mast and sails were damaged and they landed near Kottiar Bay (estuary of Mahaweli Ganga, Trincomalee) on November 19, 1659. 

Whiteman's tree
When King Rajasinghe II of Kandy (1629-1687 A.D.) heard of their arrival he sent them gifts and invited them to come ashore. They were received by the Disawe of the district. But later, while Robert Knox Snr, was resting under a tamarind tree the king's men took him captive. 

In later years, this tree where Robert Knox Snr. was captured was duly marked with a memorial tablet. On it was carved the words: "This is the Whiteman's tree under which Robert Knox, captain of the ship 'Anne' was captured". The stone tablet was placed in 1893 and was maintained for a number of years by the Government Archivist. When the tree showed signs of decay, he had it sprayed with insecticide and even propped up with brick columns. But the cyclone that lashed Trincomalee in the 1970s brought the tree down. The stone tablet that stood near the foot of the tree was taken to the Colombo National Museum to be preserved for posterity. 

Their life and times 
Most of Knox's sailors once ashore were actively engaged in knitting garments or engaging in animal husbandry, poultry and even growing paddy. There were others engaged in distilling arrack. Robert Knox Jnr. became a money lender like the Afghans of old in Ceylon. He gave not money, but paddy with 50% interest charged on it.

Some sailors became the blue-eyed boys of the king and were mobilized into His Majesty's armed forces. Among them was Richard Varhan who was appointed commander of the king's 970 soldiers' regiment. A few intermarried and settled down there. 

Separation and death
Then came the sad separation of the whole crew on the orders of King Rajasinghe. Robert Knox Snr. and his son were kept for some time in a village called 'Bonder-Coos-Watte (as recorded in Robert Knox's book, 'A Historical Relation of Ceylon' (1681). This village refers to the modern Bandara Coswatta close to Wariyapola in the North Central Province. 

Robert Knox, Snr. was afflicted with malaria and died in February 1666 at Bandara Koswatte. 

Knox Jnr. and his companions were allowed to stay in villages chosen by the king and allowed to roam around the area. After his father's tragic death, Knox shifted to a place called Handpanadara (modern Deyaladha Amuna Pattuwa), south east of Kegalle (present village Etiriyagala). There he stayed for two years from 1664-1666 earning his living - by knitting caps and other garments. 

Next to Legundeniya 
From Bandara Coswatte, like a wanderer of no fixed abode, Robert Knox, on the orders of the king shifted to Legundeniya in the Kandy District about 6-7 miles from Gampola accompanied by his comrades John Loveland, John Marry, and William Bay. They lived there for three years from 1667-70 A.D. 

In his book 'A Historical Relation of Ceylon' Robert Knox gives his impressions of Legundeniya. "We all four were brought up together into a town on the top of a mountain called Legundeniya, where I and my fellow Bachelor, John Loveland lived together in one house. For by this time, not many people as we, that single man, but seeing so little hopes, despaired of their liberty, and had taken wives or bedfellows. At our first coming into the town, we were very much dismayed, it being one of the most dismal places, I have set upon that Land. It stand alone upon on the top of a mountain and no other town near it and about four to five houses in it". 

The historic stone tableThe historic stone table

I first visited Legundeniya in late 1980 while on a holiday in Gampola and re-visited it recently in early October. I was keen to visit these places where Robert Knox and his companions lived. I was hosted by two of my old comrades of the Gal Oya Development Board and River Valleys Development Board in Gal Oya and Walawe and later in the Mahaweli Authority, Thilak Palliyaguruge and Upali Perera. 

On October 1 in the hazy morning mist, Upali drove in his car to Kundasale to pick us up. 

We took the Kandy-Gampola-Nuwara Eliya highway, and turned off at Vepitiya junction and from there took the road to Pupuressa via Panvilatenna. 

All around the hills were dotted with tea and rubber, the valleys and dales filled with cocoa plantations and gam-miris vel (pepper vines) interlaced with terraced rice fields. 

From Panvilatenna through the bazaar, we were directed to Robert Knox's stone memorial by the villagers who told us in their own words - "Knoxge kulunne". They pointed out to a decrepit narrow metalled road that led the way to Legundeniya. 

On a hillock close to a Bo tree (where there is power installation), stood this small stone memorial. On it was carved the following words, still discernible to the naked eye, "Here lived A.D. 1667-70, Robert Knox, John Loveland, John Barry, and William Bay". Erected 1908, JPL 

Writing of Legundeniya, Knox says, 'one of the most dismal places.... into a town on the top of a mountain'. 

In my last visit in 1980, I met an old villager, Kallora Mudiyanselage Appuhamy who had subsequently passed away. 

Apparently one of his ancestors had lived with Knox as his caretaker providing him and his companions with foodstuffs. 

He too bore that same name of Kallora Mudiyanselage Mudalihamy. 

Escape to freedom

Our next destination on Robert Knox's trail was Eladetta. On this trip too I was joined by Thilak Palliyaguruge while Upali Perera came in his car from Kandy to pick us up. Eladetta is not far from Kandy, just six or seven miles away on the road to Daulagala. 

When I visited here in 1985, I remember seeing a stone slab indicating that Robert Knox and his companions had dwelt there. The words etched on it are still to be seen: "Whereabout dwelt Robert Knox, Stephen Ruthland 1670-1673 and with them until 1674 Roger Couhd, Ralph Knight." Erected in 1908 - J.P.L. 

Knox's Eladetta

Robert Knox in his book 'An Historical Relation of Ceylon', describes Eladetta thus:- ".. It lies some ten miles to the southwards of the city of Cande in the country of Oudaneu ra in the town of Elledat."

At Eladetta I met someone who could throw light on Knox - Mr. Eladetta Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Karunaratne - a Police Sergeant who had retired in 1977 after serving the Police Department for 34 years. He told me that the land he had been living on from 1974, where he had built his present house was part of the land where Robert Knox and his companions had lived and put up a house. 

The paddy field (or the corn field, as Robert Knox termed it) was just on the other side of the road belonging to the Nugawela family living in the Eladetta Walauwa, close to Mr. Karunaratne's house. 

The stone memorial of Knox lies within the grounds of Mr. Karunaratne's house by the roadside. The memorial was initially placed on the other side of the road, opposite his house but after road widening, it was re-erected at his request on his own land close to the roadway. He has given permission to the local authorities to have this stone memorial enclosed as a protective measure by putting up a small wall or some sort of railing around it. 

Priceless relic

Mr. Karunaratne told us how while he was digging a pit in his garden in 1975, he had unearthed an object resembling a badge made of brass or other metal with an insignia. The inscription on it reads "Quofas Et Gloria Duccant".

This badge also has a moulding of a cannon mounted on wheels which he surmised could have been the emblem of Knox's ship, 'Anne' (on which the whole crew had set sail from London) and perhaps would have been the emblem embossed on the cap worn by the captain of the ship, Captain Knox. 

Much interested in objects of antiquity, Mr. Karunaratne had stored the badge away safely and he proudly displayed it to us during our visit. 

Among the other memorabilia he had unearthed were some pieces of broken crockery and some Dutch coins. 

In his book, Robert Knox makes mention of the land he had bought to put up his house at Eladetta for five and twenty Lares (that is about five dollars). He writes, "....the terms of purchase being concluded on between us, a writing made upon a leaf in a manner witnessed by seven or eight men of the best." 

Stone memorial 

Mr. Karunaratne disclosed how this stone memorial came to be erected in 1908. It was in 1909, during the time of the British occupation that the Government Agent of the Central Province, J.P. Lewis, took steps to find out the exact location where Robert Knox and his three companions had lived at Eladetta. 

He was assisted by the then Nugawela Dissawe, the then Ratemahatmaya of Uda Nuwara. Nugawela Dissawe had his stately home called the Eladetta Walauwa, a short distance away from Knox's historic abode (also close to Mr. Karunaratne's house). 

Knox's paddy field

Robert Knox also worked a paddyfield close to where he and his companions had stayed at Eladetta. Knox described this 'corn' field and the water spout thus: "... it being a point of land standing, into a corn field that corn fields were on the three sides of it and just before my door a little corn ground belonging thereto, and very well watered in ground besides eight Cocker-nut Trees." 

Mr. Karunaratne took us to see these particular lands that now lie across the road from his house. The water spout where Knox and his companions had bathed and irrigated their paddy fields still stands. 

Robert Knox hated marriage and did not allow his companions to tie the knot. If anyone did so, he had to leave Knox's house forthwith. So while at Eladetta, his only companion was Stephen Ruthland who also remained like Knox - a bachelor. Two other comrades, Roger Couhd and Ralph Knight married Sinhalese girls of the village and left his house. 

Girl called Lucea? 

Knox also mentions a little girl in his book. A girl called Lucea (of a mixed marriage of his own countryman) who had looked after him in the house with affection and devotion. 

It is also said in Knox's book, that after escaping from Eladetta, when he reached London, he had sent a note to Lucea through one of his countrymen living around Eladetta, that he wanted to bequeath his property and small estate to her. 

It was from Eladetta that Captain Robert Knox and his only companion, Stephen Ruthland made their final escape in 1679 through Anuradhapura. They trekked along the banks of Malwatu Oya-then Dutch territory. They reached the Dutch Fort at Arpu on October 16,1679, after being captive in the Kandyan Kingdom for nearly nineteen long years. From there they set sail to England via Mannar and Batavia. Knox reached London in September, 1680, when he was 40 years old. 

Robert Knox died in London on June 19, 1720, at the ripe old age of 79. "He was buried at Wimbledon Church five days after, possibly by the side of his mother who died in 1656." (quoted from the Introduction by Mr. Sarath Saparamadu to Robert Knox's book 'An Historical Relation of Ceylon' 1st edition 1958 -Tissara Prakasakayo, Dehiwela). 

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