11th June 2000
Could it be Robert Knox?
By Richard Boyle
Having been made aware of the possible risk that placing himself and his crew in the hands of the King's army on shore might entail, Captain Singleton invites the trusted William to formulate a plan of action. This is a crucial point in the Ceylon episode contained in Daniel Defoe's novel, The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton (London, 1720). Defoe engineers the plot so that William uses his proven diplomatic skills and perceptive nature to outwit the designs of the King. In doing so he avoids for his characters the real-life fate of Robert Knox Senior, his son, and the crew of the Anne.
William suggests that some of the crew venture towards the shore in two boats flying a white flag, but with concealed fire-arms in case of trouble. Singleton agrees with this strategy, and appoints William as Captain for the duration of the encounter with the islanders.
"Upon this Conclusion of our Debates, he (William) ordered four and Twenty Men into the Long-Boat, and twelve Men into the Pinnace, and the sea being now pretty smooth, they went off, being all very well arm'd. Also he ordered, that all the Guns of the great ship, on the side which lay next the Shore, should be loaded with Musquet Balls, old Nails, Stubbs, and such like pieces of old Iron, Lead, and any thing that came to Hand; and that we should prepare to fire as soon as ever he saw us lower the white Flag, and hoist up a red one in the Pinnace.
"With these Measures fix'd between us, they went off towards the Shore, William in the Pinnace with twelve Men, and the Long-Boat coming after him with four and twenty more, all stout, resolute Fellows, and very well arm'd. They row'd so near the Shore, as that they might speak to one another, carrying a white Flag as the other did, and offering a Parle. The Brutes, for such they were, shewed themselves very courteous, but finding we could not understand them, they fetch'd an old Dutchman, who had been their Prisoner for many years, and set him to speak to us."
Dialogue is not one of Defoe's strengths. His may reflect the conversational patterns of the period, but it becomes tedious and interferes with the progress of the narrative. How unfortunate, then, that at this point there begins a considerable dialogue between the Dutchman and William. The former extends an invitation from the King to come ashore, to partake of his hospitality.
The latter, after voicing his concern about the sincerity of the King's intentions, asks for the Dutchman's assessment of the situation:
"Will. Then answer me plainly, if thou art a Christian: is it safe for us to venture upon their Words, to put our selves into their Hands, and come on Shore?
Dutchm. You put it very home to me: Pray let me ask you another Question: Are you in any Likelihood of getting your Ship off, if you refuse it?
Will. Yes, yes, we shall get off the Ship, now the Storm is over, we don't fear it.
Dutchm. Then I cannot say it is best for you to trust them."
Upon hearing this, William requests the Dutchman to tell the King that they are strangers, driven ashore by a storm. That they would like to accept his invitation, but that they cannot leave the ship at present due to the damage it has sustained. The Dutchman protests that the King will expect them to pay their respects, that otherwise he will be in a great rage. Nevertheless, he agrees to deliver the message and arranges to return the next day.
"It was our good Fortune to get our Ship off that very Night, and to bring her to an Anchor at about a Mile and a Half further out, and in deep Water, to our great Satisfaction; so that we had no need to fear the Dutchman's King with his Hundred Thousand Men; and indeed we had some Sport with them the next Day, when they came down, a vast prodigious Multitude of them, very few less in Number, in our Imagination, than a Hundred Thousand, with some Elephants; tho' if it had been an Army of Elephants, they could have done us no Harm, for we were fairly at our Anchor now, and out of their Reach; and indeed we thought ourselves more out of their Reach, than we really were; and it was ten Thousand to One, that we had not been fast aground again; for the Wind blowing off Shore, tho' it made the Water smooth where we lay, yet it blew the Ebb further out than usual, and we could easily perceive the Sand which we touch'd upon before, lay in the Shape of a Half Moon, and surrounded us with two Horns of it.
"On that Part of the Sand which lay on our east Side, this misguided Multitude extended themselves; and being most of them not above their knees, or most of them not above Ancle deep in the Water, they, as it were, surrounded us on that Side, and on the Side of the main Land, and a little Way of the other Side of the Sand, standing in a Half Circle.
"We had a very leaky Ship, and all our Pumps could hardly keep the Water from growing upon us, and our Carpenters were over-board working to find out, and stop the Wounds we had received, heeling her first on one Side, and then on the other; and it was very diverting to see how, when our Men heel'd the Ship over to the Side next the wild Army that stood on the East Horn of the Sand, they were so amazed between Fright and Joy, that it put them into a kind of Confusion, calling to one another, hallooing and shrieking in a Manner it is impossible to describe."
After providing this stereotypical picture of the ignorant, excitable and unrestrained native, Singleton goes on to relate how a column of the army, along with the Dutchman, detaches itself and moves towards the ship. Once again, William is sent in the Pinnace to act as plenipotentiary. There then follows more lengthy and convoluted dialogue between William and the Dutchman that seriously impedes the action.
The Dutchman begins by repeating the King's request. William pours scorn on the idea, reminding him that there is a hostile army awaiting them onshore. He continues:
"Will. Do'st not thou know that we are out of Fear of all thy army, and out of Danger of all that they can do?
Dutchm. You may think your selves safer than you are: You do not know what they may do to you. I can assure you that they are able to do you a great deal of Harm, and perhaps burn your Ship."
A sloop belonging to the pirate fleet suddenly arrives off shore and fires it guns. The Dutchman becomes agitated, saying that if there is any more firing, the general leading the army will take it that the truce is broken, and will command the archers to let fly their arrows. William suggests that he swims out to the boat, but the Dutchman answers that he would have a thousand arrows in his back before he reached it. "Just at this time our Ship fired three Guns, to answer the Sloop, and let her know we saw her, who immediately, we perceived, understood it, and stood directly for the Place; but it is impossible to express the Confusion and filthy vile Noise, the Hurry and universal Disorder, that was among that vast Multitude of People, upon our Firing of the three Guns. They immediately all repaired to their Arms, as I may call it; for, to say they put themselves into Order, would be saying nothing.
"Upon the Word of Command then they advanced all in a Body to the Sea-side, and resolving to give us one Volley of their Fire Arms, for such they were, immediately they saluted us with a Hundred Thousand of their Fire-Arrows, every one carrying a little Bag of Cloath dipt in Brimstone, or some such thing; which flying thro' the air, had nothing to hinder it taking Fire as it flew, and it generally did so." "Nor did they fire, as I may call it, all at once, and so leave off; but their Arrows being soon notch'd upon their Bows, they kept continually shooting, so that the Air was full of Flame. "I could not say whether they set their Cotton Rag on Fire before they shot the Arrow, for I did not perceive they had Fire with them, which however it seems they had.
The Arrow, besides the Fire it carried with it, had a Head, or a Peg, as we call it, of a Bone, and some of sharp Flint Stone; and some few of a Metal, too soft in itself for Metal, but hard enough to cause it to enter if it were a Plank, so as to stick where it fell." William and his men take cover at the bottom of their boat, so as to defend themselves from anything that "came Point blank, as we call it." Then they fire a volley of their small arms at the soldiers who stand beside the Dutchman, taking care not to injure their fellow European. They row nearer and fire a second volley. Several soldiers fall. On the ship, meanwhile, Captain Singleton and the rest of the crew are anxious not to miss out on the "sport":
"We thought this was a very unequal Fight, and therefore we made a Signal to our Men, to row away, that we might have a little of the Sport as well as they; but the Arrows flew so thick upon them, being so near the Shore, that they could not sit to their Oars; so they spread a little of their Sail, thinking that they might sail along the Shore, and lye behind their Waste-boards: But the Sail had not been spread six Minutes, but it had five Hundred Fire-Arrows shot into it, and thro' it, and at length set it fairly on Fire; nor were our Men quite out of the Danger of its setting the Boat on Fire, and this made them paddle and shove the boat away as well as they could, as they lay, to get further off.
"By this time they had left us a fair Mark at the whole Savage Army; and as we sheer'd the Ship as near to them as we could, we fired among the thickest of them six or seven times, five Guns at a time, which shot old Iron, Musquet Bullets, etc.
"We could easily see that we made Havock of them, and killed and wounded Abundance of them, and that they were in great Surprize at it; but yet they never offered to stir, and all this while their Fire-Arrows flew as thick as before." However, a while later the arrows do cease to rain down, and the Dutchman runs towards William's boat waving a white flag. He has a message from the General of the Army, who pleads with them to come ashore otherwise he will be put to death by the King.
William suggests that the Dutchman ask the General for permission to come aboard the ship in order to persuade Captain Singleton to comply.
The strategy works, the Dutchman boards the ship, and they set sail.
"As we went out, being pretty near the Shore, we fired three Guns as it were among them, but without any Shot, for it was no Use to us, to hurt any more of them. After we had fired, we gave them a Chear, as the Seamen call it; that is to say, we halloo'd at them by way of Triumph, and so carried off their Ambassador; how it fared with their General, we know nothing of that.
"This passage, when I related it to a Friend of mine, after my Return from those Rambles, agreed so well with his Relation of what happened to one Mr. Knox, an English Captain, who some time ago was decoyed on Shore by those People, that it could not but be very much to my satisfaction to think what Mischief we had all escaped; and I think it cannot but be very profitable to record the other Story, which is but short, with my own, to shew, whoever reads this, what it was I avoided, and prevent their falling into the like, if they have to do with the perfidious People of Ceylon."
Asks H. A. I. Goonetileke: "Could 'a Friend of mine" have been Robert Knox himself, who died in the year Captain Singleton was published?" Needless to say, we will probably never know, unless new correspondence or such evidence comes to light.
Defoe then proceeds to tell "the other Story," that of Robert Knox taken from An Historical Relation of Ceylon, over the course of a dozen, tersely written pages. The conclusion of this summary marks the end of the Ceylon episode. In fact, it heralds the close of Singleton's story. Soon afterwards he tells William that he wants to renounce the pirate life, a decision that prompts his friend to do the same. They take their stash, fool the crew into thinking they have been captured (so as not to invite retribution), and proceed to England. In a neat romantic twist, Singleton ends up by marrying William's sister, and of course they live happily ever after on his ill-gotten gains.
There it is, then, the first fictional taste of Ceylon for early 18th century readers of English: perhaps not the best introduction to the island, but an introduction nevertheless. Although there was a 134-year hiatus before William Knighton provided the next example of Ceylon-based fiction, since the mid-19th century literally scores of novels in English have been written by outsiders that feature the island to some degree or other. But none relates a story quite like that of Captain Singleton.
Footnote: Related research has revealed that Captain Singleton is referred to in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, Oxford, 1989) in connection with two of the words of Sinhala origin first brought to the English language by Robert Knox. One of the words is dissava, which is employed by Defoe in his synopsis of Knox's story - "The King of the Country . . . sent down a Dissuava, or General, with an Army," and the other is talipot-leaf - "Two great tallipat leaves for tents."
Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to