Robert Knox

Birth: 1640


Robert Knox (1640?-1720), writer on Ceylon, born about 1641, was the son of Robert Knox, a Scot, and commander in the East India Company's service. His parents were strict puritans. His boyhood was passed at Wimbledon, Surrey, where his mother was buried in 1655 or 1656. In January 1658 he sailed with his father to Fort George.

On the homeward voyage in November 1659 a storm obliged them to put into Cottiar Bay, Ceylon, where Knox, his father, and fourteen others were made prisoners and carried into the interior of the island. His father died in captivity on 9 Feb. 1661. Knox remained a prisoner at large for nineteen years and a half, during which time he supported himself by knitting caps, lending out corn and rice, and hawking goods about the country. He made several unsuccessful attempts to escape.

The rajah pressed him to enter his service, but Knox chose to risk losing his head rather than do so. The East India Company did what they could to obtain his release. At length, on 22 Sept. 1679, Knox, along with a faithful comrade named Stephen Rutland, contrived to elude the vigilance of the sentinels, and after a dangerous journey reached Arippu, a Dutch settlement on the north-west coast, on 18 Oct. Thence they passed to Colombo (28 Oct.) Here he was hospitably received, sent to Batavia, and thence to England, which he reached in September 1680. The East India Company acted generously towards him, and took him into their service.

In October of the same year he sailed as fourth mate of the New London, then bound for Bantam, and on his arrival he had the option of serving in India by sea or land at a salary of 40l. a year. In May 1681 he was entrusted with the command of a merchantman bound for the South Seas. He was appointed in 1684 to take the Tonquin to Madagascar, there to ship a cargo of negroes for St. Helena; and in 1686 he appears as commander of the same vessel in the fleet sent to India for the intended capture of Chittagong.

In January 1694 he arrived at Cork from India, probably one of his last voyages (Hedges, Diary, Hakluyt Soc., vol. ii.) He died, a well-to-do bachelor, 19 June 1720, in the parish of St. Peter-le-Poor, London (Probate Act Book, P.C.C. 157, Shaller, 1720). His numerous letters to his cousin, John Strype [q. v.], now preserved in the University Library, Cambridge (Cat. of MSS. v. 151), show him to have been a man of morose temper, rough manners, and a woman-hater (cf. Addit. MS. 5874, f. 5.)

Knox wrote 'An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon in the East Indies; together with an Account of the detaining in Captivity the Author and divers other Englishmen now living there, and of the Author's Miraculous Escape. Illustrated with figures and a map of the island,' fol., London, 1681. A preface was furnished by Robert Hooke, M.D. [q. v.], who probably assisted in the compilation. The book, which is both delightful and trustworthy, is the first account of Ceylon in the English language.

It was reprinted in J. Harris's 'Navigantium Bibliotheca' (vol. ii.), with additions from the history of J. Ribeyro, fol., London, 1705, and as an appendix to the 'History of Ceylon,' by Philalethes, A.M. Oxon. (Robert Fellowes [q. v.]), 4to, London, 1817. It was translated into Dutch by S. de Vries, 4to, Utrecht, 1692, and into French, 2 vols. 12mo, Amsterdam, 1693; while a German version appeared in vol. viii. of J. J. Schwabe's 'Allgemeine Historie der Reisen,' 4to, 1747, &c. Knox bequeathed to his nephew, Knox Ward, 'my Booke of Ceylone, with manuscripts of my owne Life.'

Knox's portrait was engraved by R. White in 1695.

[Tennent's Ceylon; Knox's Ceylon; Noble's Cont. of Granger's Biog. Hist. of England, i. 268-269. Copies of some of Knox's Letters to Strype are in Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 5652.]


Gordon Goodwin, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 31. pgs. 330-331.

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