One of the myriad interesting life stories from the history of British seafaring is that of Robert Knox (1641-1720). Knox’s eventful life encompassed more than nineteen years of captivity in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and a popular published account thereof, service with the English East India Company and mercantile fleets, and a relatively affluent retirement dedicated to writing. Oh, and along the way Captain Knox introduced Europe to the wonders of cannabis and likely helped to inspire Daniel Defoe‘s famous novel Robinson Crusoe.
Robert Knox was born at Tower Hill in London and mostly raised in Surrey, being taught there in his youth by James Fleetwood, the future Bishop of Winchester. From the ages of fourteen to sixteen, Robert joined his sea captain father of the same name on the merchant ship Anne, bound for India. By the time the Knoxes returned to England, Oliver Cromwell had given the East India Company a monopoly over all trade to the East, so the ship and its crew had to enter the Company’s service. (The East India Company was later one of the key institutional actors in the ‘search for the longitude’, being keen to improve the safety and speed of navigation and typically adopting new technologies more swiftly than did the Navy.)
The Anne left for Persia and the Coromandel Coast of India in January 1658, but lost its mast in stormy weather near Masulipatam in November of the following year. The East India Company ordered the crew to stop at Kottiar Bay in Ceylon for repairs – whereupon the Knoxes’ storied troubles began. Upon arrival at Kottiar, Knox senior made the mistake of slighting the King of Kandy, Rajasinha II, by neglecting to send him a letter of introduction and a gift. The King ruled Ceylon but was in an unhappy alliance with the Dutch and imprisoned the Captain, his 19 year-old son and 14 crewmen in early 1660 in response to this latest European outrage. The Knoxes, held apart from their crewmen, suffered debilitating illnesses including malaria, and the elder died within a year. His son then spent the first two decades of his adult life in captivity, subsisting by working as a farmer, pedlar and moneylender as he was moved from place to place.
Knox finally escaped with a friend to the Dutch forces on Ceylon in 1680, and on the voyage home to England he wrote an account of his experiences. The directors of the East India Company encouraged him to turn it into a book, and the author was assisted in this by his cousin, the historian and biographer Reverend John Strype, and by Robert Hooke, the famous natural philosopher and polymath who was curator of experiments at the Royal Society. An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, in the East Indies, published in 1681 with a laudatory preface by Hooke and engaging engravings of the inhabitants of Ceylon, quickly made Knox famous. (Hooke quipped, ‘Read therefore the Book it self, and you will find your self taken Captive indeed, but used more kindly by the Author, than he himself was by the Natives.’)
The book was translated into at least French, German and Dutch and was still being reprinted and informing perceptions of Asian lands and their monarchs decades later (and historians’ understanding of historical Ceylon even today). For example, the London newspaper the Post-Master or Loyal Mercury reprinted excerpts from the book in 1721, and in that same year the eponymous ‘Cato’ cited the work in the London Journal while extolling British ‘Liberty’ as compared to life under Asian and African monarchs.
The East India Company supported Knox upon his return home and, after studying navigation, he captained the Tonqueen Merchant on four voyages to the East over thirteen years. However, he fell out with the Company over its withdrawing the traditional ‘indulgence’, whereby captains had previously been able to carry some additional stock to sell for their sole benefit. (The East India Company archives now at the British Library contain countless ‘indulgence’ requests. For example, on 9 October 1709, Captain Samuel Goodman of the ship Fort St. George asked Thomas Lewes, ‘Sr pray git me an order for one Case of small Looking glasses & Cuterley [sic] ware Cost ninety five pound & Eighte pound of Silver & gould thread cost 32 pound On ye 5 L Ct x Indugence Granted on ye 5 plent’.)
In 1694, Knox participated in a private venture to Surat, which was unsuccessful. When he returned to England in 1701 at the age of 60, he retired and largely spent the remaining 20 years of his life corresponding and writing about his experiences. His portrait below, which was painted in 1711 when Knox was 66, depicts the author attired in a natty brown silk gown and a waistcoat embroidered with red flowers, writing ‘Memoires of my owne life 1708′. Around him are many of the tools of his different trades: inkwell and pen; sword and pistols; and the maritime staples of anchor, quadrant and lodestone (used to magnify compass needles).
In addition to the other fabled chapters of Knox’s life, the captain introduced his friend Robert Hooke to exotic specimens gathered on his travels. (The two men were close enough that Knox was at Hooke’s deathbed in 1703 and organised the brilliant but difficult man’s burial.) These specimens famously included ‘a strange intoxicating herb like hemp’. Hooke spoke to the Royal Society of it in December 1689, resulting in the first detailed English description of cannabis. He suggested that it might have curative properties and reported that Knox ‘has so often experimented it himself, that there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter’.
Finally, the captain’s experiences and writings may have influenced his contemporary Daniel Defoe’s famous 1719 novel about a castaway, Robinson Crusoe, and his novel Captain Singleton of the following year (the same year that the real-life Captain of Ceylon died). Katherine Frank has written about the degree to which Knox may have influenced Defoe in her book Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox And The Creation Of A Myth, although some critics have suggested that she overemphasizes the connection. Whatever the truth about the captain and the novelist, the characteristics of Knox’s own writing — clear idiomatic language, factual details, and a strong and self-sufficient ‘hero’ — are widely recognized to have contributed to the evolution of the English novel.
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