4th June 2000
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The Experiences of a fictional pirate and his crew in Ceylon

By Richard Boyle 
Although William Knighton's, 'Forest Life in Ceylon' (London, 1854) is the first novel in the English language to be set predominantly in Ceylon, there is a twenty-page episode in Daniel Defoe's 'The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton' (London, 1720) that is located on the island. iThis may come as a surprise to those who believe that Defoe's sole connection with Ceylon is his use of Robert Knox as a part model for the castaway character, Robinson Crusoe. 

As this episode in Captain Singleton antedates Knighton's work by 134 years, it warrants examination and a re-telling. There are, however, other reasons why it deserves to be focused upon, apart from the purely chronological. The prime one is that, for his own dramatic purposes, Defoe harps on the manner in which Knox and the other crew members of the Anne were duped, captured and detained by King Rajasingha II. In doing so he reinforces the contemporary European view of the islanders as being particularly skilled in the art of entrapment. Another reason is that the author gives credible details of the south coast of Ceylon and the methods of warfare adopted by the islanders.

When Defoe took to writing fiction in 1719 he was almost an old man, the most prolific writer of his day, and perhaps the most widely read. For thirty years he had been turning out books and pamphlets on trade, politics, religion, and many other subjects of topical interest. However, after the success of his first novel, 'The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe' (1719), he realized that there was an untapped market for fiction in England. For the next few years, therefore, he fed the appetite of the reading public with a rapid succession of novels, including 'The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe' (1720), the aforementioned Captain Singleton, and the better-known Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders (1722).

The contemporary popularity of such books as William Dampier's, 'New Voyage Round the World' (1699) demonstrates that the reading public of the early 18th century was, in particular, eager for stories about adventures at sea. It is not difficult to see why, of course, for at the time Defoe was writing, large areas of the earth were still undiscovered or very imperfectly explored. There is, however, another reason why Defoe's early readers were interested in such a story as Captain Singleton, for the period was the golden age of piracy, when pirates generated the kind of curious interest that the criminal class invariably has done over the ages. 

Defoe's manner of writing was episodic - or to put it more bluntly, he made it up as he went along, trusting in the inspiration of the moment to propel him from one page to the next. Even by Defoe's standards, though, Captain Singleton is a loosely knit story. The basic fault of the novel is that Defoe has hardly troubled to give Singleton's character any substance, and appears more concerned with the man of action rather than the man within. This was possibly due to his lack of experience as a fiction writer, for a year later he created Moll Flanders, who is at once an accomplished criminal and a woman in whom the reader is genuinely interested. 

Nevertheless, the author's intention becomes apparent as the narrative progresses. H. A. I. Goonetileke puts it in a nutshell: "Singleton's piracies launch him upon a global sweep from the Atlantic to the Pacific, probing into the remotest parts of the East. But the novel is not mere travel-narrative. It reveals Defoe's deeper concern with the human predicament - man's vulnerability to sin under the pressure of circumstances, and his innate craving for redemption and divine grace."ii 

The novel begins with the abduction of Singleton as a baby, when a suitor distracts his nursery maid. He passes through the hands of a beggar woman and then a gypsy woman before going to sea under a kindly captain. But his benefactor dies and Singleton ends up on a Portuguese ship in which "Thieving, Lying, Swearing, Forswearing, joined to the most abominable Lewdness, was the stated Practice of the Crew." The "vulnerability to sin" of which Goonetileke writes, surfaces: it is the beginning of the boy's descent into piracy. 

Defoe lets Singleton relate his life story in the first person singular. He tells of the plunder of countless ships, of brutal murder, and of extraordinary adventures, such as an epic trek across unexplored Africa. In due course he becomes a highly prosperous pirate captain, whose success is due in part to his reliance on the excellent judgement of his friend William, a Quaker turned pirate. It is the character William that readers of Captain Singleton usually find the most attractive. The humanizing effect of William on the otherwise unremitting record of pillage and piracy can hardly be over-estimated.

On one Far Eastern voyage Singleton's ship touches at Java. After it is re-provisioned, the Captain informs us: "We went merrily on for the Coast of Ceylon, where we intended to touch to get fresh Water again, and more Provisions. We put in upon the South Coast of the Island, desiring to have as little to do with the Dutch as we could; and as the Dutch were Lords of the Country as to the Commerce, so they are more so of the Sea Coast, where they have several Forts, and in particular, have all the Cinnamon, which is the Trade of that Island.

"We took fresh Water here, and some Provisions, but did not much trouble ourselves about laying in any stores. We had a little Skirmish on Shore here with some of the People of the Island, some of our Men having been a little too familiar with the Homely Ladies of the Country; for Homely indeed they were, to such a Degree, that if our Men had not had good Stomachs that way, they would scarce have touch'd any of them.

"I could never fully get it out of our Men what they did, they were so true to one another in their Wickedness; but I understood in the main, that it was a barbarous thing they had done; for the Men resented it to the last Degree, and gathered in such Numbers about them, that had not sixteen more of our Men, in another Boat, come all in the Nick of Time, just to rescue our first Men, who were but Eleven, and so fetch them off by main Force, they had been all cut off, the Inhabitants being no less two or three Hundred, armed with Darts and Launces, the usual Weapons of the Country, and which they are very dexterous at the throwing. As it was, seventeen of our Men were wounded, and some of them very dangerously. But they were more frightened than hurt, too; for every one of them gave themselves over for dead Men, believing the Launces were poisoned." 

His men having perpetrated this "barbarous thing" on the local women, Singleton has the gall to declare: "We had enough of Ceylon." Some of the crew were bent on going ashore to exact revenge for the casualties, but William eventually convinces them of the futility of killing "poor naked Wretches" who "have no Money," and that it would destroy "innocent men, who had acted no otherwise than as the Laws of Nature dictated." So they set sail from the island. 

"But another Accident brought us to a Necessity of further Business with these People, and indeed we had like to have put an End to our Lives and Adventures all at once among them; for about three Days after Putting out to Sea, from the Place where we had that Skirmish, we were attack'd by a violent Storm of Wind from the South, or rather a Hurricane of Wind from all the Points Southward.

"The ship I was in split three Topsails, and at last brought the Main Top-mast by the Board; and in a Word, we were once or twice driven right ashore; and one time, had not the Wind shifted the very Moment it did, we had been dash'd in a Thousand Pieces upon a great Ledge of Rocks, which lay off about Half a League from the Shore.

"We found a fair Opening between the Rocks and the Land, and endeavoured to come to an Anchor there; but we found there was no Ground fit to Anchor in, and that we should lose our Anchors, there being nothing but rocks. We stood thro' the Opening; the Storm continued, and now we found a dreadful foul Shore, and knew not what Course to take. We look'd out very narrowly for some River, or Creek, or Bay, where we might run in, and come to an Anchor, but found none a great while. At length we saw a great Head-Land lye out far South into the Sea, and that to such a Length, that in short, we saw plainly, that if the Wind held where it was, we could not weather it; so we ran in as much under the Lee of the Point as we could, and came to an Anchor in about twelve Fathom Water.

"But the Wind veering again in the Night, and blowing exceeding hard, our Anchors came home, and the Ship drove till the Rudder struck against the Ground; and had the Ship gone Half her Length further, she had been lost and every one of us with her. But our Sheet Anchor held its own, and we heaved in some of the Cable, to get clear of the Ground we had struck upon. It was by this only Cable that we rode it out all Night, and towards Morning we thought the Wind abated a little, and it was well for us that it was so; for in spite of what our sheet Anchor did for us, we found the Ship fast a-ground in the Morning, to our very great Surprize and Amazement.

"When the Tide was out, tho' the Water here ebb'd away, the Ship lay almost dry upon a Bank of hard Sand, which never, I suppose, had any Ship upon it before; the People of the Country came down in great Numbers, to look at us, and gaze, not knowing what we were, but gaping at us as at a great Sight or Wonder, at which they were surpriz'd, and knew not what to do.

"I have Reason to believe, that upon the Sight they immediately sent an account of a Ship being there, and of the Condition we were in; for the next Day there appeared a great Man, whether it was their King or no, I knew not, but he had Abundance of Men with him, and some with long Javelins in their Hands, as long as Half Pikes; and these came all down to the Water's Edge, and drew up in very good Order just in our View. They stood near an Hour without making any Motion, and then there came near twenty of them with a Man before them, carrying a white Flag before them. They came forward onto the Water as high as their Wastes, the Sea not going so high as before, for the Wind was abated, and blew off Shore."

The "Great Man" or King makes a long speech and then gestures the men aboard the ship to come ashore. Captain Singleton is initially eager to do so, but William intervenes, imploring the captain to exercise caution: 

"Upon which I asked him (William), if he had any Knowledge of the Place, or had ever been here? He said, No. Then I asked him, if he had ever heard or read anything about the People of this Island, and of their Way of treating any Christians that had fallen into their Hands? And he told me, he had heard of one, and he would tell me the story afterward. His name, he said, was Knox, Commander of an East India ship, who was driven on Shore, just as we were, upon the Island of Ceylon, tho' he could not say it was at the same Place, or whereabouts: That he was beguiled by the Barbarians, and enticed to come on Shore, just as we were invited to do at that time; and that when they had him and eighteen or twenty of his Men, and never suffered them to return, but kept them Prisoners, or murdered them, he could not well tell which, but they were carried away up into the Country, separated from one another, and never heard of afterwards, except the Captain's Son, who miraculously made his escape after twenty years Slavery." 

Such is the manner in which Defoe weaves the real "Mr. Knox" into the tapestry of his fictional narrative. Regrettably, however, Defoe introduces Knox solely in order to support his portrayal of the Ceylonese as enticers, rather than employ Knox's shrewd observations on the islanders to give his Ceylon episode more substance. Edmund Leach suggests that Knox's patrons in the Royal Society manipulated his work, and that the one-sided account of Rajasingha's despotism may have been designed to expose the corruption of Charles I. Furthermore, Leach goes on to speculate that Defoe was among those who were involved in the production of the book." iii There is no doubt, though, that with the publication of An Historical Relation and its many translations in Europe, Rajasingha and the Ceylonese acquired a not altogether fair reputation for their treatment of outsiders.

At this juncture it is apposite to acknowledge the undoubted influence that An Historical Relation of Ceylon had on Defoe's Captain Singleton. One of the first to allude to this influence is the indefatigable researcher Donald W. Ferguson back in the last decade of the 19th century. Ferguson (son of A. M. Ferguson, proprietor and editor of the Ceylon Observer) states: "We know that among those who acquired a copy of Knox's book was Defoe, who made use of it in his story of Captain Singleton."iv 

In the late 20th century, H. A. I. Goonetileke has proved to be a notable Knox scholar among the current generation of researchers. "The fact that Daniel Defoe drew on Knox's An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon for material for his later works of fiction is well-known," Goonetileke declares. "The similarity between the prose of the two writers was first pointed out by Herbert White v and James Ryan mentioned it in his 1911 edition of Knox. John Masefield in A Mainsail Haul (1913) cursorily noted the indebtedness, and took it for granted that Knox and Defoe were acquaintances. He concludes that certain things occur in Robinson Crusoe and Captain Singleton because he had read Knox, and even further that he had access to Knox's manuscript notes."

Others who have contributed significantly to the subject include the American academic Arthur Wellesley Secord, author of a lengthy study of Defoe's narrative method,vi and the island's very own E. F. C. Ludowyk,vii who, as H. A. I. Goonetileke attests, "goes further than Secord in demonstrating Defoe's debt to Knox."viii.

Continued next week


i pp 264-288
ii "Robert Knox in the Kandyan Kingdom, 1660-1679: A Bio-Bibliographical Commentary" - The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, Vol.1 No. 2, December 1975. 
iii "What happened to An Historical Relation . . .on the way to the printers?" (University of Adelaide: 1989)
iv Captain Robert Knox: Contributions towards a Biography (Colombo & Croydon, 1896-1897). 
v "Notes on Knox's Ceylon in its literary aspect," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) Vol. 13, No. 44, 1893. 
vi Studies in the narrative method of Defoe (Urbana, Illinois: 1924). 
vii "Robert Knox and Robinson Crusoe," University of Ceylon Review (Vol. 10, No. 3, July 1952) and "Two Englishmen and Ceylon," Ceylon Observer Annual, 1949. 
viii Ibid. ii
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