Was Robert Knox the real Robinson Crusoe?

By Richard Boyle

In 1681, Richard Chiswell, printer to the Royal Society, published at the Rose & Crown in Saint Paul’s Churchyard, London, the first book about Ceylon in the English language – and one which in some ways is still the best. With a commendation by Sir Christopher Wren and a preface by Dr Robert Hooke, then Secretary to the Royal Society, the book was titled An Historical Relation of Ceylon. It was written by Robert Knox, the son of an East India Company captain, with Hooke’s help.

Knox was confined to the Kandyan Kingdom for nearly twenty years (1660-80), a period that matched his twenties and thirties. An Historical Relation of Ceylon not only contained the first comprehensive description of the island in English but also Knox’s capture, village confinement, and escape. The book was widely read in England, discussed in London’s coffee houses (where Knox spent much time with Hooke) and subsequently published in Dutch, German and French translations. It’s simply one of the finest jewels in Sri Lanka’s two centuries of English literature. Moreover, Knox has long thought to have been the primary source for the character of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but other theories recently proposed have obscured such a claim.

Robert Knox

It is hypothesised by Donald Ferguson in Captain Robert Knox: the twenty years captive in Ceylon, (1896-97), and James Ryan, editor, An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1911), that Knox and Defoe at least met each other. John Masefield in A Mainsail Haul (1913) and Arthur Secord in “Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe”, University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, (Vol. 1, No. 9, 1924), go further and assert they were acquaintances.

However, Knox does not mention Defoe in his correspondence or unpublished autobiography discovered at the Bodleian Library in 1910. Defoe was twenty when Knox returned to England in 1680 and did not start writing until he was thirty, so any acquaintanceship would have started towards the end of the century. What is certain is that Defoe possessed a copy of Knox’s book – see George A Aitken’s “Defoe’s Library”, The Athenaeum (June 1, 1895). Its ownership may have proved useful, for Secord comments: “So similar in tone are the two works that many passages could be transferred bodily from one to the other without noticeable effect upon them.”

That Defoe seems indebted in part to Knox for the resourceful character of Robinson Crusoe – who appears in The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720) – is commented on by Secord, E.F.C. Ludowyk in “Two Englishmen and Ceylon”, Ceylon Observer Annual, (1949) and “Robert Knox and Robinson Crusoe”, University of Ceylon Review, (Vol. 10, No. 3, July 1952), and S.D. Saparamadu, editor, An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1958). As Saparamadu notes: “If you peer into the features of Robinson Crusoe you will see something of the man who was not the lonely inhabitant of a desert island, but who has lived in an alien land among strangers, supported by the strength of his resolution to resist acceptance of his fate.”

Yet authors of the slew of Defoe biographies mostly disregard Knox, and in an instance when he is mentioned, astonishingly maligned: Paula R. Backscheider in Daniel Defoe: His Life (1989) dismisses Knox as an “inferior writer”. Even a specific book on the subject, Tim Severin’s Seeking Robinson Crusoe (2002), ignores Knox. Instead, Severin believes the source was a surgeon, Henry Pitman, who wrote a short book, A Relation of the Great Suffering and the Strange Adventures of Henry Pitman, (1689) about his escape from a Caribbean penal colony and being shipwrecked and marooned for thirty years on an uninhabited island, Salt Tortuga, off Venezuela. Severin argues Robinson Crusoe was published by William Taylor, son of Pitman’s publisher, J. Taylor, so Defoe would have been aware of the earlier book.

Another possible source is examined by Diana Souhami – who like Severin overlooks Knox - in Selkirk’s Island (2001). Alexander Selkirk was the Sailing Master of the Cinque Ports, sent to plunder Spanish ships and ports along the coast of South America in 1703. Selkirk had a difference of opinion with his captain and was put ashore on the uninhabited Juan Fernandez Islands off Chile, where, due to his lack of initiative, he barely survived for four years before being rescued by Captain Woodes Rogers. Selkirk’s account was published by Rogers’ in his Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712), and by Edward Cooke, another expedition member, in A Voyage to the South Seas (1712).

The circumstances are similar enough to Crusoe’s and Defoe may have been influenced by them but moulded his hero’s character on Knox, the more adept survivor. Assuming this was the case Masefield laments: “It is sad that the comparatively colourless Selkirk should have robbed him (Knox) of much credit properly his.”

An example of related research is Linda Colley’s Captives (2002) that covers a variety of prisoners in various parts of the British Empire from 1600 to 1850. It’s amazing that Colley, like Souhami, fails to mention Knox though she covers Defoe and Crusoe in her opening chapter.

An astonished American-born but England-based biographer remarked to me: “Is Knox really so forgotten?” Mysteriously, he is. Yet Ernest A. Baker concludes in The History of the English Novel (1929): “Knox might well have been the author of the Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe.”

Ludowyk suggests it was at the time of Selkirk’s rise to public notice that Defoe experienced illumination regarding the character of Crusoe: “Robinson Crusoe represented all Defoe’s notions about himself and about man’s fate in the world. His reading of Knox must one day have brought them into sharp focus. Perhaps the popular stir caused by Selkirk proved to be the auspicious moment when Defoe comprehended the truth of experience as Knox had not seen it, but as it could be read in his pages.

Defoe saw Man in the image of Robert Knox in the loneliness of his captivity in the Kandyan Kingdom.”
Ludowyk states that the resemblances between Robinson Crusoe and An Historical Relation of Ceylon “are numerous enough to sort themselves into three classes. The first is the surface likeness arising from the folklore of travellers’ tales; the stock repertory of seventeenth-century records of voyages and shipwreck.” This “stock repertory” includes makeshift clothing, the growth of long beards, the keeping of goats, and the use of stockades.

The second class concerns details so much alike that they are no doubt borrowed, especially certain Biblical references and aspects of Knox’s voyage. The third and least superficial class concerns character and religion, both of which enabled Knox to surmount the psychological difficulties of his predicament. Ludowyk remarks: “Not the chance correlates of any seventeenth-century travel book, but the special significance of yet another human being’s triumph over circumstances is likely to have impressed Defoe.”

The success of Robinson Crusoe encouraged Defoe to write The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton (1720). In this instance there is no doubt regarding Knox’s contribution, which reinforces the theory that Knox is likely to have been a source for Defoe. Captain Singleton includes an incident in which the eponymous hero’s pirate ship goes aground on a sandbank on the south-eastern coast of Ceylon. Military forces arrive to entrap the pirates but do not succeed, partly because a similar situation faced by an earlier English sailor, as remembered by the ship’s surgeon, provides a forewarning.

The surgeon recalls the Englishman’s name “was Knox, Commander of an East India ship, who was driven on Shore, just as we were, upon the Island of Ceylon: That he was beguiled by the Barbarians, and inticed 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 murthered 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.”

Defoe fudges the details slightly, but he undoubtedly refers to Knox and his father, for at the end of the Ceylon episode Singleton explains, “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.”

Singleton proceeds to tell the short “other Story” - that of Knox taken from An Historical Relation of Ceylon - over the course of a dozen, tersely written pages. Such is the manner in which Defoe weaves the real “Mr. Knox” into the tapestry of his fictional narrative. Knox’s escape is dealt with in some detail, in particular the device employed of walking backward along the sand to deceive pursuers. Furthermore, Defoe includes an episode based on Knox’s capture in later life by Madagascar’s King Rybassa. This is described in Knox’s unpublished manuscript, so Secord comments that Defoe either had access to it or heard the story directly from Knox.

That this episode from Captain Singleton was the first fictional portrayal of the island in the English language, just as An Historical Relation of Ceylon was the first factual account, is not remarked upon by commentators on Knox. Nevertheless, Captain Singleton - like Robinson Crusoe an early example of the genre - heads a list of novels in English wholly or partly set in the island by overseas authors such as Charles Dickens, Dennis Wheatley, Barbara Cartland, Angus Wilson, and Arthur C. Clarke.

Two novels for adolescents are indebted to Knox. The first is William Dalton’s Lost in Ceylon: The Story of a Boy and Girl’s Adventures in the Woods and the Wilds of the Lion King of Kandy (1861). Walton makes no reference to Knox in his To My Readers, yet the novel is wholly influenced by An Historical Relation of Ceylon. Of greater interest is R.L. Spittel’s Wild White Boy (1958), set during the time of Knox’s captivity. A shipwrecked fourteen-year-old Dutch boy becomes part of the king’s court, and eventually escapes into the jungle with a girl from an indigenous community, the Veddahs. Spittel displays ingenuity by going a step further than Defoe and giving Knox a role – albeit a passive one - within the story.

One character reports to another of a meeting with Knox: “He lives and looks like any Sinhalese villager. It is hard to distinguish him from one – he is sun-browned, long-haired, and bare-bodied, wearing only a cloth. He chews betel all day, and ejects the saliva between two fingers pressed to the lips as to the manner born. You’d hardly believe a European could look so like a native. In fact I took him for one when he greeted me, as I was passing, and invited me into his hut.”

Spittel goes on to provide certain details of Knox’s captivity through the speech of this character: “He has a small plot of paddy which he leases out. And you will laugh when I tell you he knits caps and sells them! A most resourceful fellow. He built his mud-walled, straw-thatched hut with his own hands. His companions are a talking mynah and a pet monkey. When told, the monkey fetches him a firebrand to light his homemade pipe.”

The answer as to whether Defoe did borrow Knox’s character for Crusoe will become clearer in 2011, for I am glad to inform Sri Lanka’s public that the astonished biographer mentioned earlier, Katherine Frank – A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley (1986), Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt (1994), A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontë (1990), Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi (2002) – has been stirred into writing the first complete biography of Knox. When published, it’s certain to cause much comment, here and abroad.

Richard Boyle is the author of Knox’s Words (Visidunu Prakashakayo, 2004), a glossary of the words of Sri Lankan origin or association brought to the English language by Knox such as |Buddha, rattan
and puja

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