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Robert Knox and seventeenth-century Kandy

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In 1660, a party of English sailors who had gone ashore near the mouth of the Mahaweli Ganga were taken prisoner by soldiers of the king of Kandy, Rajasinha II. Among them was a 19-year-old Londoner named Robert Knox. Knox’s subsequent account of his nineteen years as a hostage of the king was eventually published as An Historical Relation of Ceylon, a unique record which offers a fascinating snapshot of everyday life in the seventeenth-century Kingdom of Kandy. The book later served as one of the major sources of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and something of Knox’s own industrious (if rather dour) character may have crept into Defoe’s self-sufficient hero.

Upon arriving in Kandy, Knox was surprised to discover that he and his shipmates were not the only European “guests” being detained at Rajasinha’s pleasure – also in Kandy were prisoners of war, shipwrecked sailors, army deserters and assorted diplomats. Knox seems to have admired many of the qualities of his hosts, though he did object (as have so many subsequent Western travellers to Asia) that “They make no account nor conscience of lying, neither is it any shame or disgrace to them, if they be catched in telling lies; it is so customary.” He also recorded (with puritan disapproval) the kingdom’s liberal attitude to sex: “Both women and men do commonly wed four or five times before they can settle themselves.” Married women appeared free to have affairs with whoever took their fancy, so long as they were of an equal social rank, sometimes even leaving their husbands at home to look after the children. When important visitors called, husbands would offer them the services of their wives and daughters “to bear them company in their chamber”. Men were allowed to have affairs with lower-caste women, but not to sit or eat with them. Polyandry, in which a wife was shared between two or more brothers, or in which one man married two or more sisters, was also accepted, while incest was reputedly common among beggars. If nothing else, the kingdom’s sex drive was impressive. As Knox observed of the Kandyan women: “when their Husbands are dead, all their care is where to get others, which they cannot long be without.”

In terms of material possessions, the life which Knox recorded was simple. Most Kandyans contented themselves with the bare necessities of life, encouraged in a life of indolence by the fact that the moment they acquired anything it was taken away by the king’s mob of tax collectors. Justice was meted out by a court of local chiefs, but appeared to favour whoever was able to present the largest bribe – those convicted of capital offences were trampled to death by an elephant.

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