The Kandyan Kingdom and Robert Knox

The Kandyan Kingdom and Robert Knox

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For hundreds of years, the stubborn Kandyan Kingdom proved a thorn in the side of conquest-happy European powers. Isolated, unassailable and mysterious, the kingdom remained the only independent region of Sri Lanka until finally falling to the British in 1817.

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When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka, in 1505, the island was ruled by a number of independent kingdoms. None of them had any hope of matching the Europeans’ naval power, and almost all fell quickly. Jaffna, Colombo, Trincomalee, Galle… the coastal regions were soon under Portuguese control. Suddenly, the treacherous jungle and impossible mountains of Kandy, which had always encumbered commerce and life, proved to be an invaluable asset, guaranteeing independence.

Only a couple paths led through the jungle to Kandy and the natives were able to keep these routes secret. Revealing one of the paths to a foreigner was an offense punishable by death. And given the mountainous landscape, the roads were easily defensible; even if a invading patrol were to find the right trail, they would be routed long before arriving.

Portuguese, Dutch, English, all flailed against the airtight defense of the mountain kingdom. Throughout the colonial period, the Kandyans proved to be feisty negotiating partners, frequently siding with one power against another, then gleefully breaking treaties as the whim took them. The first Dutch diplomatic mission to Kandy ended in a bloody farce, when the king, offended by the foreigners’ drunken and unruly behavior, ordered them killed.

Due to its isolation, relatively little is known about life inside the Kandyan Kingdom. The most important source for information comes from an Englishman named Robert Knox, who was captured by the Kandyans. Knox lived for nineteen years as a prisoner in the kingdom. As time wore on, he gained a fair degree of autonomy, and was able to wander about at will — the few routes which led to escape were heavily guarded.

Eventually, the resourceful Knox (thought to be the real-life model for Robinson Crusoe) did escape, and wrote a long account of his time on Ceylon. An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon dedicates most of its pages to a description of life in the Kingdom of Kandy. In the bawdiest bits, Knox, a straight-laced puritan, describes his shock at the overt sexual practices of the islanders, such as polygamy and incest. If you’re interested, the book is available for free Kindle Download at Amazon.

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