Recently, there has been a reference by a reader to a daily newspaper that Robert Knox was instrumental in providing samples of ganga (cannabis) to his friend Robert Hooke, the scientist, philosopher, architect and polymath. While these samples were not gathered from Ceylon, this was a relevant area of research for my glossary Knox’s Words [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Another of Knox’s discoveries


Recently, there has been a reference by a reader to a daily newspaper that Robert Knox was instrumental in providing samples of ganga (cannabis) to his friend Robert Hooke, the scientist, philosopher, architect and polymath. While these samples were not gathered from Ceylon, this was a relevant area of research for my glossary Knox’s Words (2004), the reason for which will be revealed. Thus I feel inclined to provide the details of this curious episode. However, I must stress before commencing this article that its theme is the traditional pharmaceutical use of the drug, and not the recreational, illegal use, which I have no wish to encourage.

I am fascinated by the number of ‘firsts’ that Knox achieved in relation to British interactions with this island. He wrote the first comprehensive account of Ceylon in English, was the first to contribute words of Sri Lankan origin or association to the English language (as recorded in Knox’s Words), the first to provide a Sinhala-English glossary (with the aid of Robert Hooke), and the first Briton to discover the pharmaceutical properties of kansa/ganja/bhang (Cannabis indica) as employed in traditional herbal medicine.

Until 350 years ago, the British, like most northern races, only knew of the related industrial hemp, produced from the fibres of Cannabis sativa to make cordage, clothing and paper. Today, over thirty countries, including Great Britain, still grow hemp for traditional purposes and also the manufacture of biodegradable plastics and biofuels. Cannabis sativa never gained a reputation as a drug because the psychoactive substance, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is only one-twentieth that of Cannabis indica. 

To judge from the written record, it was during initial British interaction with the Subcontinent in the seventeenth century that cannabis, or rather bhang in this cultural context, was encountered. Sailors, soldiers and merchants no doubt witnessed the sacred use of bhang; smoked by swamis in a chillum, or drunk as thandai – prepared with almonds, spices, milk and sugar – during Holi. In addition they no doubt witnessed recreational use – a handful of enthusiasts inhaling from a hookah, or the drinking of a simple beverage. Perhaps they also witnessed its therapeutic use in curing fever, dysentery, gonorrhea, and even lisping.

The initial description in English of recreational use is from Thomas Bowrey’s A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal 1669 to 1679 (1905). The incident occurred in Bengal in the 1670s and involved Bowrey, a merchant seaman, and a handful of his kind. Bowrey’s historic account amusingly describes the diverse effects of bhang: 

“It Operates according to the thoughts or fancy of the Party that drinketh thereof, in Such manner that if he be merry at that instant, he Shall Continue So with Exceeding great laughter, rather overmerry than Otherways, laughing heartily at Everything they discern; and, on the Contrary, if it be taken in a fearful or Melancholy posture, he Shall keep great lamentation and Seem to be in great anguish of Spirit.

“To try practice, we would need drink Every man his pint of Bangha, purchased at the Bazar for the Value of 6d English. We drank Each man his proportion, and made fast all doors and Windows, that none of us might run out into the Street, or any person come in to behold any of our humours thereby to laugh at us.

“It soon took its Operation Upon us, but merrily, Save upon two of our Number. One of them Sat down Upon the floor, and wept bitterly all the Afternoon; the Other terrified with fear did run his head into a great Moryavan Jaree [earthenware pot], and continued in that Posture four hours or more; some lay upon the Carpets complimenting each other in high terms, each fancying himself an Emperor. One was quarrelsome and fought with the wooden Pillars of the Porch, until he had little Skin upon his knuckles. Myself and one more Sat sweating for the Space of three hours in Exceeding Measure.”

The first documented pharmaceutical use of the drug by Britons also took place in the 1670s, but this time in Ceylon. In An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), Robert Knox relates how between 1673 and 1679 he and a shipmate made clandestine journeys towards the Dutch-held northwest coast in a bid to escape. 

“We were fain to drink of Ponds of Rain water, wherein the Cattel lie and tumble, which would be so thick and muddy, that the very filth would hang in our Beards when we drank. By which means when we first used those parts we used often to be sick of violent Fevors and Agues.

“We learned an Antidote and Counter-Poyson against the filthy venomous water, which so operated by the blessings of God, that after the use thereof we had no more Sickness. It is only a dry leaf; they call it in Portuguez banga, beaten to Powder with some of the Countrey Jaggory: and this we eat Morning and Evening upon an empty stomach. It intoxicates the Brain, and makes one giddy, without any other operation either by Stool or Vomit.” 

Knox eventually escaped and returned to London in 1680. His reintegration with English society began when his brother James took him to some of London’s fashionable coffee shops. James Knox, a talented limner (painter of miniatures), was an acquaintance of eminent persons such as Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, and Christopher Wren, who congregated at Garraway’s and Jonathan’s. Thus Knox was brought to the notice of London’s intelligentsia. By the time An Historical Relation of Ceylon was published the story of his confinement and escape had spread across the metropolis, which accounted in part for the book’s success.

Knox’s introduction to Robert Hooke was significant in several ways. It led to Hooke giving Knox invaluable assistance in the editing and publication of the book. It marked the beginning of a friendship that endured until the death of the latter twenty-three years later. (Indeed, when Hooke was dying it was Knox, and only Knox, he called to his bedside.) It also enabled Hooke, then Secretary to the Royal Society, to gather scientific and other information from Knox from his sojourn in Ceylon, and subsequently his voyages as an East India Company captain. For instance, take this entry from Hooke’s diary reproduced in RT Gunther’s Early Science in Oxford, Vol. 10. (1935): “Tu 24 [Sept 1689] Received from Capn Knox 2 books: one in Arabic, another in Malabaric [Malayalam] characters . . . good discourse on Mauricius [Mauritius], the Cape, Bombay, etc.” 

A notorious spendthrift, Hooke made notes in his diary of the money he spent at coffee houses on entertaining others. There are copious notes over the years that read, “Brought Chocolate for Knox, 4d”, “Capt Knox. Choc: 6d,” etc. Almost a decade after Knox’s return from Ceylon there are three entries of coffee shop meetings within a fortnight in which bhang is mentioned. The first two record the effects of the drug as related by Knox, while the third notes that Knox gave him leaves and seeds:

“Sat [26 Oct 1689] At Jon. Cap. Knox choc. ganges strange intoxicating herb like hemp, takes away understanding and memory, for a time frequently used in India with benefit.”

“Tu. 5 Nov: 1689. Capt Knox told me the intoxicating leaf and seed, by the Moors called Ganges, in Portug. Banga; in Chingales [Sinhalese] Consa: ‘tis accounted wholesome, though for a time it takes away the memory and understanding.”
“Thu 7 [Nov 1689] from Cap. Knox. Konsa leafe and seed”

Six weeks later, on December 18, 1689, Hooke employed Knox’s information in a revolutionary lecture to the fellows of the Royal Society that described the social, psychiatric and therapeutic uses of bhang. Fortunately, his notes for “An Account of the Plant, call’d Bangue” were found posthumously and published in Philosophical Experiments and Observations of the late Eminent Dr Robert Hooke (1726). 

Hooke began by informing his audience that ‘Bangue’ was “a certain Plant which grows very common in India, and the Vertues, or Quality thereof, are there very well known; and the Use thereof is very general and frequent; and the Person [Knox], from whom I receiv’d it, hath made many Trials of it, on himself, with very good Effect.”

Hooke described how the leaves and seeds were ground into a powder before “being chewed and swallowed, or washed down, by a small Cup of Water”. He continued: “[It] doth, in a short Time, quite take away the Memory and Understanding; so that the Patient understands not, nor remembereth any Thing that he seeth, heareth, or doth, in that Extasie, but becomes, as it were, a mere Natural, being unable to speak a Word of Sense; yet is he very merry, and laughs, and sings, and speaks Words without any Coherence, not knowing what he saith or doth; yet is he not giddy, or drunk, but walks and dances, and sheweth many odd Tricks; after a little Time he falls asleep, and sleepeth very soundly and quietly; and when he wakes, he finds himself mightily refresh’d, and exceeding hungry.” 

“And that which troubled his Stomach, or Head, before he took it, is perfectly carried off without leaving any ill Symptom, as Giddiness, Pain in the Head or Stomach, or Defect of Memory of any Thing during the Time of its Operation. And he assures me, that he hath often taken of, when he had found himself out of Order, either by drinking bad water, or eating of some Thing which have not agreed with him.”

Knox had informed Hooke of bhang’s sacred use in Ceylon, such as by Indian swamis participating in a pada yatra to a shrine such as Kataragama. As a devout Christian, he had been unimpressed with the consequences: “He saith ‘tis commonly made Use of, by the Heathen Priests, or rambling Mendicant Heathen Friars, who will meet together, and dose themselves with this medicine, and then ramble several Ways, talking they know not what, pretending after that, they were inspired.”

In an historic demonstration that would be illegal in Britain by 1925, Hooke produced a quantity of seed, no doubt given to him by Knox in November, and some young plants he had cultivated, probably from the same seed, for the audience to peruse: “Here are divers of the Seeds, which I intend to try this Spring, to see if the Plant can be raised, whether it will have the same Vertues. Several trials have lately been made with some of this, which I here produce, but it hath lost its Vertue, producing none of the Effects before-mentioned.”

Hooke’s experiments the next spring go unrecorded. Assuming they were unsuccessful, Hooke must have been disappointed, for he was an insomniac and regularly took laudanum (opium and alcohol solution) and other concoctions. Indeed it is clear from his diaries that he was drug-dependent and suffered unpleasant side effects such as clouded vision and anxiety. Bhang, which he had obviously experienced thanks to Knox, must have been a more agreeable therapy. 

Hooke saw great potential in the medicinal and psychiatric applications of the drug. “It may therefore, if it can be produced, possibly prove as considerable a medicine in Drugs as any that is brought from the Indies,” he suggested, “and may possibly be of considerable use to Lunaticks, or for other Distempers of the Head and Stomach, for that it seemeth to put a Man into a Dream, whilst yet he seems to be awake, but cannot obtain that, which should, and in all Possibility would, cure them, and that is a profound and Quiet Sleep.”

Hooke’s suggestion was ignored or soon forgotten (a successful campaign to discredit Hooke had been undertaken by his sworn enemy, the popular Isaac Newton). Typically, Berlu’s Treasury of Drugs, published a year after Hooke’s lecture, described bhang as having “an infatuating quality and pernicious use”. The drug’s therapeutic properties were not systematically investigated by Western doctors until Dr. W.B. O.’Shaughnessy’s trials in India in the late 1830s. Since then a number of therapeutic effects have been discovered and the British Medical Association has described cannabis as “remarkably safe…with a side effects profile superior to many conventional medications”. 

Today, the main therapeutic use of cannabis is as an analgesic in the management of cancer pain and in the prevention of nausea and vomiting caused by anti-cancer drugs. Cannabis is also effective in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and epilepsy. Furthermore, research at the California Pacific Medical Center has shown that the drug may stop breast cancer from spreading throughout the body, while a study at the Complutense University of Madrid has shown that it promotes the death of brain cancer cells.

For Knox, however, bhang was taken as an acknowledged herbal treatment for an illness typical of a previous era: the severe fever, often fatal, that resulted from drinking pond water contaminated by cattle during droughts.

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.