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 Post subject: Knox, Woolf and Sinhala culture
 Post Posted: Thu Aug 11, 2005 8:38 pm 
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Knox, Woolf and Sinhala culture

by Kamalika Pieris
@ The Island


Robert Knox and Leonard Woolf are British nationals who lived in Ceylon and on their return to England, swung Sinhala culture into the orbit of "English literature’.

Westernised Ceylonese, were grateful. They were mainly Christians educated in English, who, through no fault of their own, did not have much personal contact with the Sinhala oriented indigenous culture. They were thrilled with this London recognition. They were further delighted to find that the work by Knox had inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe.

Robert Knox (1641- 1720) came to Sri Lanka in 1659, on the "Ann", a trading ship in the service of the English East India Company, which was commanded by his father. The ship was not heading for Ceylon, but it was damaged in a storm and had to enter Kottiyar harbour in Trincomalee for repairs. Knox and his father were captured and taken up to the Kandyan kingdom. The father died. Knox was detained for nearly twenty years in the interior of Ceylon as a prisoner. After being sent from one place of confinement to another, he ended up in the village of Eladatta near Daulagala. Then in 1679, he escaped to the Dutch, who were ruling in the coastal area.

Thereafter he returned to England.

Before returning, Knox told everything he knew to the Dutch authorities and later to the East India Company in London, who were also interested in gaining control in the Indian Ocean. He obtained several overseas commissions and thereafter engaged in the slave trade of Madagascar. He also engaged in illegal trade and piracy in the Indonesian seas.

His book ‘A historical relation of Ceylon’ was published in 1681. This work was published with the encouragement and support of the East India Company and the Royal Society of England. It gave an account of life in the Kandyan kingdom as Knox saw it, as well as the author’s personal experiences. Countries with colonial ambitions in Asia showed an interest in this book and it was translated into French, (1684) German (1689) and Dutch (1692). The Dutch edition sold out at once. Knox wrote additional material for a revised version but this was not published until Tisara Prakshakayo, in 1989 commendably issued the full work with a descriptive essay by J. H. O. Paulusz.

Knox’s book has been presented to the public as a wonderful work of which Sri Lanka should be very proud. It is presented as the best available source book for the social and economic history of Ceylon in the 17th century.

That is not so. To start with, it is not a full and complete description of the society of the time and it cannot, in any case, be taken as an account of the whole of the 17th century. The work contains useful ethnographic and historical data on the Kandyan kingdom and has been used by researchers as a supplementary source. However, it cannot be considered outstanding reference work due to certain limitations.

The text is not completely accurate. K. W. Goonewardena provides numerous examples to show that Knox’s assessments of the locals and the king are inconsistent, contradictory, and go against the facts presented. This however must be expected in a work of this kind. Knox was not a well educated man. He was imprisoned at a young age and wrote from memory. But there is another more serious drawback. Knox lived in the Kandyan Kingdom for twenty years but he did not integrate into the society. He avoided marriage, did not live in the traditional style, and remained detached, because from the beginning Knox was determined to escape. Therefore, his account is that of a person who resisted the society and the people among whom he found himself.

Knox moved around freely only in the last 10 years of his stay, when he was allowed to work as a peddler. He confined his travelling to the north and west of Gampola and Kandy, because he was planning to escape to the Dutch along that route. So his first hand knowledge was confined to that area alone. For a person who lived here for twenty years, his knowledge of Sinhala was most inadequate. He did not know the difference between ‘one’ (eka) and ‘with’ (ekka). He said that ayubowan meant ‘many lives’ instead of ‘long life’.

His social contacts were limited. He did not mingle with the aristocracy. He never met the king, and had spoken just once to an old adigar regarding a personal matter. He said that he was too small to have had any intercourse with this group. He was staunchly Christian and throughout his stay in the island, clung to his copy of the Bible. He did not speak at all with the country’s most learned section, the Buddhist monks. He states that nobody knew when the ancient temples and devales had been built.

Goonewardana suggests that Knox mixed mainly with the low castes and poor people. Knox constantly referred to the poverty of the people amongst whom he was quartered. He said that his neighbours at Eladatta were thieves and slaves and that most of the time they only came to beg and borrow. This was probably the only intercourse that Knox had with them. Clearly, he did not mix intimately with them. Paulusz suggests that Knox was exposed to the Muslims (moor) rather than the Sinhalese. Eladatta was a moor hamlet and there were moors at Getaberiya, close to where Knox lived. His peddling companions would also have been moors.

This book was useful to the British as it provided strategic information on a country that the British were planning to invade. Knox talked of rebellions and wars, matters were of value to the colonial powers. Rajasinghe II was depicted as a very cruel person who spent most of his time in his harem. Knox gave the contour of the Mahaveli, that it starts from Adams Peak and runs through the whole land northwards and falls into the sea at Trincomalee. He referred to ants of various sorts, kumbias, tel kumbias, dimiyo, and Kadiya. It sounded as though he had been bitten by all of them. He mentioned leeches as well.

Knox wrote his book for the European reader, so he told them what they wanted to hear. He reinforced their notions of European superiority. He said that the king and people preferred Christianity to Buddhism. That Europeans were highly respected, were given high positions and considered superior to the natives. Actually, Knox and the rest were looked down on as they were not clean in their habits and even the low caste people would not permit to touch their water pots, Of 30 English captives, only three were given employment under the king and of these only one lasted in office.

The book also contains drawings that claim to depict Kandyan scenes. They were done in London by an illustrator who had never seen the items he was drawing and sensibly decided to withhold his name. They are drawn in European style and the figures do not resemble Sinhalese. Paulusz pointed out that the elephant is "wrongly drawn on every point’. The drawing of Rajasinghe II has been described as ‘fanciful.

It is a deliberate caricature. Knox said that he only saw the King twice, from a great distance and cannot recall his appearance or dress. These fictitious and inaccurate drawings have come to symbolise the traditional culture and are regularly reproduced in local publications. This is most inadvisable and the practise should be discontinued.

This book has been marketed as an authoritative text. E. F. C. Ludowyke said that Knox ’s story was the story of a remarkable experience and a miraculous escape. His prejudices were natural to an English man of his age.

He had a duty to help the trading interest of his country by describing Ceylon. He came to wrong conclusions, but he rarely misstated anything. His was the first serious account written in English by a man who lived here.

It was ‘neutral, reliable, authoritative. Paulusz said that Knox had acquired a wide practical knowledge of the Sinhalese people such as few foreigners could have equalled under the same cramping conditions. Ferguson said that the illustrations were completely accurate. H. A. I. Goonetileke gave an effusive introduction to the Navrang edition. S. D. Saparamadu praised Knox in the first Tisara edition.

Then came Sarojini Jayawickrama who, in a doctoral thesis has argued that Knox need not be treated as a valued text. The book had a clear colonial purpose from start to finish. It was a part of the exploitative colonial se. Persons from the Royal Society probably edited the manuscript, so what we are reading may not be Knox at all.

Knox and his father may have been spies to start with. (Writing that conquers. p. 65, 295) The public however have been fed the idea that Knox is some sort of hero.

Gamini Punchihewa had visited the ‘memorable spot’ in Eladatta where Knox had lived. The British had put up a tablet there in 1908 saying -

‘Here lived Knox’. (The great sandy river p 251-252.)


Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) graduated from Cambridge University and came to Sri Lanka in 1904 as a civil servant under the British government. He served in Jafffia, Kandy and Hambantota ending up as assistant government agent. In 1912 he returned to London and resigned from the service. He married Virginia Woolf, founded the Hogarth Press, and joined the Fabian Society. He wrote hundreds of articles for the Fabian Society and edited two of its journals. He became the Fabian Society’s expert on international and imperial questions.

He wrote many influential books on these issues. His work on imperialism in Africa, titled ‘Empire and Commerce in Africa (1920) took the position that imperialism was bad for both the ruler and the ruled. He supported the League of Nations. He also played a central role in the labour movement of the time. He was on the Labour Party committees for international and colonial issues and advised them on colonial matters. During his lifetime and after, Woolf was overshadowed by other members of the Bloomsbury group of artists and intellectuals. However, he is now getting attention - A monograph titled ‘International theory of Leonard Woolf, a study in 20th century idealism" was published in 2003.

It is very clear from all this that Woolf was very skilled at analytical writing. He also briefly tried his hand at creative writing. In 1913, he published a novel about sex and violence in a Ceylon village and called it ‘The village in the jungle." The setting is a Sinhala village and there is lots of local colour. There is a Rate mahatmaya, a korala, a mudalali, some veddhas, Kataragama, and chena cultivation. But the story is of murder, lust, theft, and abandonment. It is cheap melodrama. It was, of course, totally ignored in British literary circles. The Ceylonese however rushed to claim it, pointing out that Woolf was the first to successfully convey the rhythms and idiom of Sinhala a speech through English prose. They also liked the fact that the characters were locals. The University of Peradeniya obtained the original manuscript and an annotated edition was produced.

Yasmine Gooneratne and D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke consider this novel to be the first great work of fiction from Ceylon and the finest creative work in English to date about our island. Together with Peter Elkin, who lectured in Sri Lanka, they think it is better than E. M. Forster’s Passage to India. One said it was a masterpiece, another said it was a minor classic and the third is surprised that this book did not get recognition in Britain like Passage to India.

All sorts of flattering interpretations were given to this utterly mediocre text. Yasmine Gooneratne considers it a very complex novel that probes deeply and intimately into the minds and actions of the characters and showed sympathetic understanding. The incidents and characters seem acceptable to her. She says that Woolf would have found isolated villages like Beddegama in Hambantota. Elkin saw symbolism in the ‘endless struggle of the villager to keep the jungle back.’ E. F. C. Ludowyke suggested that the novel could be interpreted as a clash between good and evil, symbolised by jungle, village and villagers.

It is not possible to agree with any of this. This novel disparages and distorts indigenous culture, whether ‘primitive’ or not. The characters live in a ‘strange world of superstition, devils, grotesque imagination and perpetual twilight.’ The novel does not show the strong sense of community that would exist in a village in the jungle. Such people would know the jungle intimately and live in harmony with it. In his much admired ‘poetic’ evocation of the terror and beauty of the southern jungle we are actually given Woolf’s own dislike and distrust of the jungle.

This work is defective as far as plot, characterisation, and language are concerned. Rajiva Wijesinghe has called it a ‘vulgar and patronising work’. It was a story of thwarted lust and hate of proportions. It was not concerned with moral problems or deep themes, as admirers have suggested. It lacked well-rounded characters, and there is no mention of their inner lives. ‘The reader does not really look upon them as human beings. They are creatures to be observed with interest.’ (Breaking bounds p 139,144)

This is a racist novel. The local characters are described in what would be declared offensive today. Woolf uses the words, ‘cunning, slinking, sly faced, sullen’ repeatedly to describe the villagers. He says openly that the villagers were little more than - They had the stupidity of buffaloes, the cunning of jackals and they looked like monkeys. This is not a charming literary device, as some critics argue. It is how Leonard and Virginia Woolf saw us. Virginia Woolf described E. W. Perera, whom she met in London in 1917 as a ‘little mahogany coloured wretch resembling a caged monkey.’ (Images of the Raj. p. 63.)

There is white superiority as well. Wijesinghe and N. M. M. I. Hussein have commented on the unflattering presentation of the Ceylonese. The native characters whether mudalai, headman or ordinary villager are either crooked, nasty or feeble minded. The native officials such as the village headman are corrupt without exception. One of the characters, Babun has to go to the white AGA for relief against the Headman’s antagonism and he has to bribe the peon to get in. On the other hand the English magistrate, possibly modelled on Woolf himself is upright, and sympathetic.

There is a persistent desire to somehow develop a body of creative English writing in Asia. In Sri Lanka creative writing has to compete with Sinhala writing, which is better able to depict events that are voiced in Sinhala. Therefore, English writing needs considerable propping up. ‘The writings of Knox and Woolf have been used to show that it is possible to depict indigenous experience in English. Knox has been described as the first book to be written in the English language and in many ways ‘still the best.’ Woolf’s novel is presented as a seminal work which holds an important place in the creative English writing of Asia and the South Pacific.


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