Robert Knox, then and now

“At their leisure when their affairs will permit, they commonly meet at places built for strangers and way-faring men to lodge in, in their language called Amblomb, where they sit chewing betel, and looking one upon the other very gravely, solidly discoursing concerning the affairs of the court, between the King and the great men…”

- Robert Knox

We are indebted to Robert Knox for recording his observations of 17 Century Sri Lanka, the land in which he spent nearly 20 years as a guest of the Kandyan king, willy-nilly. By the time he marooned himself here, the island had been exposed to European influences in various forms, mainly Portuguese and Dutch colonizers, for more than two centuries (For perspective, it is only 70 years since independence, and so much has changed in the country, in attitude, mindset and culture in these seven decades)

The first European to have put on paper, impressions of the prevailing social and economic life of the beleaguered kingdom of Kandy from first-hand experience, Knox’s “An Historical Relation of Ceylon” is essential reading for a student of our pre-colonial society. Knox wrote the book after escaping from the island and therefore was free of any need to please his former captors. Nevertheless, right through the narration there is a discernible empathy for the inhabitants of the island among whom circumstances compelled the seafaring Englishman to make home for a good part of his adult life.

As our opening quote bears out, the people of this land even then were political animals, showing keen interest in the goings on at the King’s Court. Given that the humble subjects of the small kingdom were affected almost on a daily basis by the capricious moods of the monarch and his high officials, this perhaps was only a natural measure of self-preservation.

“Here are no laws, but the will of the King, and whatsoever proceeds out of his mouth is an immutable law”.

Disarmed by the existing political structure; their fascination with matters of the Court were limited to passive observation. The democratic impulses, which by this time had begun to stir strongly in Europe, were conspicuously absent in our public discourse. Theirs was not to comprehend the imperatives behind the Kings actions, leave alone challenge. Deeds in births past had determined the universe they now inhabited, and could not be otherwise ordered. The existing feudal arrangement was ageless, the unfamiliar methods of the foreigners was a ‘maya’ with only a limited time scope; in a universe with a cyclical order, things will eventually comeback to the familiar. It is no surprise that our social order remained more or less unchanged from the time of King Vijaya right up to 1815, when we went under the venturesome British.

Knox also noted the extremely Spartan existence of the average subject in the Kingdom. “Their dyet and ordinary fare, is but very mean, as to our account. 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 lemon with pepper and salt they will make a hearty meal”. And their dwelling places “their houses are small, low, thatched cottages built with stick, daubed with clay…” As to the furniture “their furniture is but small. A few earthen pots, a stool or two without backs. For none but the King may sit upon a stool with a back”.

An indigent people, vulnerable to the whims of both nature as well as their autocratic rulers, inevitably giving rise to an existence that held only minimal expectations, requiring infinite patience in attaining even those. Such a situation led to resignation, bred a helpless fatalism and encouraged dark superstitions. This bleak image comes through repeatedly in the passages where Knox describes the nature and habits of the people he observed.

Kandyan Kingdom

Robert Knox did not think much of the industry or diligence of the native people. “For the Chingulays are naturally, a people given to sloth and laziness; if they can but any ways live, they abhor to work; only what their necessities force them to, they do, that is to get food and raiment. Yet in this I must little vindicate them. For what indeed should they do with more food and raiment, seeing as their estates encrease, so do their taxes also?”

The captive sailor was a clear-eyed observer of the causal inter-play between taxes and economic prosperity. It was a system in which more production, and the consequent increase in wealth, invited such high taxes (and negative attitudes) that the extra effort was counterproductive. They were trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.

It is now more than three hundred years since Robert Knox lived in, and subsequently wrote, about what turned out to be the dying stages of the Kandyan Kingdom. Much water has flowed down river Thames since then. Britain, from where Knox came, went on to build a world empire on which it was said the sun never set. Not only did it conquer large land masses inhabited by varied races, Britain also introduced concepts and institutions to these lands which to present day find wide acceptance. Today it has lost most of that empire, but remains a prosperous democracy.

British rule

Sri Lanka of course had a very different evolution. A few decades after Knox published his book, the Kandyan Kingdom ceased to be, and we lost our sovereignty to a faraway European King. Internal dissention and the inner corruption of his Court had made the situation untenable for our last Monarch. Ideas and methods, stuck determinedly in ancient times, were no match to the burgeoning commercial strength and the advance military prowess of Europe.

After living under the British rule for a century and half, in 1948 we became an independent nation with the responsibility of running our affairs in our hands once again. But we now faced a vastly different world from 1815. In this new order, there are regular elections, parliaments, political parties, newspapers, general literacy and a host of other new concepts and institutions which were not even thought about in the times of the Kings. Obviously these new, unfamiliar things demand a vastly different approach to the art of governing. How we have managed our affairs since, is recent history.

While we can see the obvious changes in the form and methodology of government, there are also features that seem not have changed much since the times of Knox.

The people in this land are still captivated by matters political, although it is now not necessary to find Ambalams to discourse thereon. Most of the pages of our newspapers and a good amount of TV time are devoted to subject. The number of persons who are occupied exclusively in activities, which can be broadly described as politics, is amazingly high here. Our small island has, in addition to the national parliament, several levels of provincial/municipal governments, which again create more vacancies for politicians of different hues and shapes. Add to this, the large following each politician invariably commands; we seem to have almost half the population doing politics.

The poverty that Knox observed among the common folk of the land is undoubtedly now much reduced.

In a democracy there is pressure on the rulers to ameliorate the living conditions of the voters. We now inhabit a smaller world and are well aware of the living standards of other nations, particularly the Developed world, offering a kind of reference point to the poor nations.

According to relevant reports in both economic performance as well as in the human development index, Sri Lanka is at a mediocre mid-point. Our performance, while acceptable in comparison to the poorer nations, is really no reason for pride for a country with the potential we possess.

For Knox also made the perceptive observation “they are a people proper and very well favoured, beyond all people that I have seen in India…” and “in carriage and behaviour they are very grave and stately like unto the Portugals, in understanding quick and apprehensive, in design subtle and crafty, in discourse courteous…”

But potential to be realized needs commitment, discipline and hard work. Knox thought we were given to sloth and laziness, which he attributed to a tax regime which discouraged industry. But certain national traits may flourish with or without a tax!


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