2013 October The Lion King of Kandy

The Lion King of Kandy.


‘Radga-Singa is his Name, which signifies a Lyon-King. He is not of the right Descent of the Royal-Blood… As to the Person of the present King. He is not tall, but very well set, nor of the clearest colour of their complexion, but somewhat of the blackest; great rowling Eyes, turning them and looking every way, alwayes moving them: a brisk bold look, a great swelling Belly, and very lively in his actions and behaviour, somewhat bald, not having much hair upon his head, and that gray, a large comely Beard, with great Whiskers; in conclusion, a very comely man. He bears his years well, being between Seventy and Eighty years of age; and tho an Old man, yet appears not to be like one, neither in countenance nor action. His apparel is very strange and wonderful, not after his own Countrey-fashion, or any other, being made after his own invention. On his head he wears a Cap with four corners like a Jesuits three teer high, and a Feather standing upright before, like that in the head of a fore-hose in a Team, a long band hanging down his back after the Portuguez fashion, his Doublet after so strange a shape, that I cannot well describe it, the body of one, and the sleeves of another colour; He wears long Breeches to his Anckles, Shoes and Stockings. He doth not always keep to one fashion, but changes as his fancy leads him: but always when he comes abroad, his Sword hangs by his side in a belt over his shoulder: which no Chingulays dare wear only white men may: a Gold Hilt, and Scabberd most of beaten Gold. Commonly he holdeth in his hand a small Cane, painted of divers colours, and towards the lower end set round about with such stones, as he hath, and pleaseth, with a head of Gold.’

This excerpt, from Robert Knox’s An historical relation of the island of Ceylon (London, 1681), describes Rajasingha II of Kandy (1608-1687), in the island of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). As Knox reports, Rajasingha II had gained the throne by a roundabout route: he was the son of Queen Catharina and the Chief Priest Senerath, whom she had married after the death of her husband. Though Catharina and the King had had two sons, her new husband was keen that his own son should benefit and therefore had the kingdom divided in three parts. In a game of lots, which was heavily stacked in Rajasingha’s favour, he gained the most lucrative province, ‘Conde Uda’ and by the end of his eventful life, had become king of the other two provinces.

Rajasingha II continued his father’s policy of courting the Dutch as a buffer against Portuguese naval power and initially it seemed that the strategy would be successful. The Kandians, with the aid of the Dutch were able to rout the Portuguese – but  Rajasingha II had merely replaced one problem with another and he would spend the rest of his reign trying to shake off Dutch influence. It was in this context that Robert Knox, who served in the East India Company, met Rajasingha II for Knox had been captured in one of Rajasingha II’s raids against Europeans.

Knox gives the reader a lot of information about himself in a book which reads more like a novel of adventure rather than an autobiography. Indeed, as Watson (2004) suggests, Knox’s text would later influence Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe which was published in 1719. Knox (1641-1720) had joined his father, who was a ship’s captain, when the latter had sailed for India in 1655 and 1658. Their initial voyage had been very successful but their second journey was to prove far more problematic for they ran into a storm near Ceylon and had to take refuge in Kottiar Bay in order to repair their mast. Knox’s father neglected to send greetings to King Rajasingha II and the latter, disenchanted with Europeans generally, ordered the ship’s crew to be detained. As Knox relates, their detention would last a long time. Some, such as Knox’s father, succumbed to malaria; others, after years in Ceylon, decided their best course was to marry there. Only Robert Knox and his friend Stephen Rutland chose to attempt a daring escape, which Knox offers his readers in a blow by blow account.

One crucial factor which enabled their escape was their profession: to stay alive during their detention they had become pedlars and were thus well used to journeying  throughout the Kandian countryside. Knox explains how they planned their escape as follows:

‘I and my Companion [[Stephen Rutland]] were still meditating upon our escape and the means to compass it. Which our peddling about the Countrey did greatly forward and promote. For speaking well the Language and going with our Commodities from place to place, we used often to entertain discourse with the Countrey people; viz concerning the ways and the Countreys, and where there were most and fewest inhabitants, and where and how the Watches laid from one Countrey to another; and what Commodities were proper to carry from one part to the other, pretending we would from time to time go from one place to another, to furnish our selves with ware that the respective places afforded. None doubted but we had made these inquiries for the sake of our Trade, but our selves had other designs in them….’

It wasn’t all plain sailing, but eventually he and Rutland made it to the Dutch fort at Aripu on 18 October 1679 and by September 1680 Knox was back in London.


Undoubtedly the success of Knox’s book was due to two factors: the daring nature of his escape and the information he gave his readers about the inhabitants, flora and fauna of Ceylon. An example of the latter is his description of the Tallipot tree – and its various uses:

‘The first is the Tallipot; It is as big and tall as a Ships Mast, and very straight, bearing only Leaves: which are of great use and benefit to this People; one single Leaf being so broad and large, that it will cover some fifteen or twenty men, and keep them dry when it rains. The leaf being dryed is very strong, and limber and most wonderfully made for mens Convenience to carry along with them; for tho this leaf be thus broad when it is open, yet it will fold close like a Ladies Fan, and then it is no bigger than a mans arm. It is wonderful light, they cut them into pieces, and carry them in their hands. The whole leaf spread s round almost like a Circle, but being cut in pieces for use are near like unto a Triangle: They lay them upon their heads as they travel with the peaked end foremost, which is convenient to make their way thro the Boughs and Thickets. When the Sun is vehement hot they use them to shade themselves from the heat. Souldiers all carry them; for besides the benefit of keeping them dry in case it rain upon the march, these leaves make their Tents to ly underin the Night. A marvellous Mercy which Almighty God hath bestowed upon this poor and naked People in this Rainy Country! One of these I brought with me into England, and you have it described in the Figure. These Leaves all grow on the top of the Tree after the manner of a Coker. It bears no kind of Fruit until the last year of its life, and then it comes out on the top, and spreads abroad in great branches, all full first of yellow blossoms, most lovely and beautiful to behold, but smell very strong, and then it comes to a Fruit round and very hard, as big as our largest Cherries, but good only for seed to sets: and tho this Tree bears but once, it makes amends, bearing such great abundance, that one Tree will yield feed enough for a Countrey. If these Trees stand near any houses, the smell of the blossoms so much annoyes them, that they regarding not the seed, forthwith cut them down. This Tree is within a Pith only, which is very good to eat if they cut the Tree down before it runs to seed. They beat it in Mortars to Flower, and bake Cakes of it; which tast much like to white bread. It serves them instead of Corn before their Harvest be ripe.’

The inclusion of this type of material in what was principally an historical work reminds us of the interconnections between Worth’s history collection and other areas of his library – in this case botany. To find out more about other books with information about Asian plants in Worth’s botanical collection see http://www.botany.edwardworthlibrary.ie/Floras/Asia/Hortus-Indicus-Malabaricus



Knox, Robert (1681), An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon,in the East-Indies (London).

Watson, I. B. (2004), ‘Knox, Robert(1641–1720)’, OxfordDictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press).


Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian, The Edward Worth Library.

Scroll to Top