The first book ever written in English about Sri Lanka—we’re talking 1680 here, over 300 years ago—was an instant hit.
‘An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon’ has been described as “the ideal mix of an adventure-filled autobiography and an exotic travel guide”.
But it did not have happy beginning. Aged just 17, Robert Knox had arrived in Ceylon on his father’s East India Company ship—and was captured and imprisoned by King Rajasingha II of the Kandyan Kingdom.
He spent the next 22 years as a captive, although he was eventually allowed to live relatively freely in the community ordered to guard and care for him.
It was that freedom that encouraged him to learn the language, customs and traditions of the Sinhalese, all of which he documented in great detail in his book.
He eventually escaped, and on the ship taking him back to England began the account of his adventures that is said to have inspired Daniel Defoe’s famous castaway adventure ‘Robinson Crusoe’.
The full story is told on the Roar.lk website, which quotes from the research collection at the library of The University of Colombo: “It would be fair to conclude that An Historical Relation was the ideal mix of an adventure filled autobiography and an exotic travel guide – so much so, that it was an immediate hit.
“It enhanced British comprehension of Ceylon at a time when such knowledge was relished, and it introduced to the world, many exotic words of Sri Lankan origin or association.”
It also notes that ‘Robinson Crusoe’, published in 1719, is hailed as the first English novel. “In this light, it may not take too much of a stretch of imagination to think it’s influence, and indirectly, the influence of Robert Knox (and Sri Lanka!), still reaches the world today, in the form of popular fiction such as Hollywood’s Castaway, starring Tom Hanks, in the year 2000. Now how is that for impact?”