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Some Ethnic Differences Observed by Robert Knox

| by Laksiri Fernando

( September 26, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) My interests are of ‘ethnicity’ deriving from the discipline of political science and not ethnography or anthropology as such, since I don’t have any disciplinary background in them. Also my effort is not to argue that ethnic labels or characteristics are static or permanent but on the contrary to hypothesise that they are time bound and context specific. Some characteristics, however, might last for many centuries or millennia. What I relate here is what Robert Knox said about ethnic groups in Ceylon in his An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon in East-Indies published in 1681 in London, of course with my interpretations and comments. Knox’s was the first book in English on Ceylon. 

Many scholars, both foreign and local, consider Robert Knox to be fairly a reliable and certainly an insightful author on the matters that he observed in the island of Ceylon during his captivity between 1660 and 1679. He on few occasions used the terms ‘barbarians’ and ‘heathens’ referring to the inhabitants in the country when he related his captivity, but in respect of internal differentiations of the people, he didn’t seem to have any preference or prejudice.

His general accounts were quite objective and dispassionate as he saw them or learned from others. Of course he was extremely critical of the King, Rajasinghe II, and his rule but these were days of the Glorious Revolution in England and many writers did the same back home in England in respect of their own king. The renowned political thinker, John Locke, who introduced a social contract theory for good governance referred to Knox’s book in his famous Two Treatises of Government.

On the issue of his captivity with others, including his father, he in fact admitted their mistake of not informing the King first and related the ensuing events which led them to be captives in the country as their ship had already left. He related that they were treated well by the King and the people to the best of their ability. However, he always wanted to escape unlike his other companions who in fact became married to the locals and got settled down in the country with families.

The book is of 189 pages without preliminaries or numerous illustrative drawings of the people, animals, plants and events. A well-organized book, separated into IV Parts and 39 short Chapters, this is one of the first sociological or anthropological studies of any country in modern times. In prefacing the Part III of his book he said, “We shall in this Part speak of the Inhabitants of this Country, with their Religion, and Customs, and other things belonging to them.”1


Before talking about the Sinhalese whom he called Chingulays, he gave a general picture of the country with the people as follows which shows the multi-cultural or multi-ethnic nature of the period. 

“Besides the Dutch who possess, as I judge, about one fourth of the Island, there are Malabars, that are free Denizons, and pay duty to the King for the Land they enjoy, as the Kings natural subjects do; there are alsoMoors, who are like Strangers, and hold no Land, but live by carrying goods to the Sea-Ports, which now are in the Hollanders hands. The Sea-Ports are inhabited by a mixt people, Malabars and Moors, and some that are black, who professes themselves Roman Catholicks, and wear Crosses, and use Beads. Some of them are under the Hollanders; and pay toll and tribute to them.” (p. 61). 

It is interesting note that he italicized all the ethnic and religious names and symbols. The subsequent descriptions also reveal that what he talked about as Blacks were the African origin people who were probably brought to the country initially during the Portuguese period.

Then he talked about the Sinhalese, what he called the “natural proper People of the Island” and it is possible that, that is what he heard from the Sinhalese. With reference to the Sinhalese, he says “I have asked them, whence they derive themselves, but they could not tell. They say their Land was first inhabited by Devils, for which they have a long fable.”
He heard a story from a Portuguese, something similar to the Vijaya story, but the banished Prince came not from India but from China! “But to me nothing is more probable that this Story. Because this people and the Chinese have no agreement nor similitude in their features nor language nor diet,” Knox says. Then in respect of ethnicity, the following is what Knox says:

“It is more probable, they came from the Malabars, their Country lying next, tho they do resemble them little or nothing. I know nation in the world do so exactly resemble Chingulays as the people of Europe.”

What the above shows is the apparent mix character of the Sinhalese as he had seen. Knox was mainly living in the Hill Country, where people were relatively fair skinned due to the climatic conditions, and among the Sinhalese, it is also possible that there had been an ancestral mix of people who came from the Northern parts of India as well. Knox had not seen the Sinhalese people who were living in the coastal areas of the West and the South who would have mostly resembled what he called the Malabars. 
Knox also talked about Vaddahs and referred to ‘Bintan’ where they mostly lived and said “In this Land are many of these wild men; they call them Vaddahs, dwelling near no other Inhabitants. They speak the Chingulay’sLanguage.” 

Knox in his book again returned back to the inhabitants and gave an account of the Tamils what he called Malabars. It should be noted that Malabars is the name that many European writers gave to the Tamils even until the 19th century, whether they lived in India or Ceylon. It also should be noted that the Tamils who lived in Jaffna almost completely escaped Knox’s knowledge or observation. He was also unaware of the Jaffna Kingdom (1215-1624) which lasted for four centuries with some interruptions. Knox was mainly referring to the Tamils who were living during the period in Wanni. But what he said was important in terms of perceived ethnicity.

In his Chapter XIII of Part IV, he was talking about other nations and referred to the Wanni Tamils as Malabars and the following was what he basically said.

“But before I enter upon Discourse of any of these, I shall detain my Readers a little with another Nation inhabiting in this Land, I mean, the Malabars; both because they are Strangers and derive themselves from another country, and also because I have occasion to mention them sometimes in this book.” (p. 175). Knox had earlier referred to Malabars in previous chapters and especially when he was escaping from Kandy and after passingAnarodgburro, he said:

“This Plain is encompassed round the Woods, and small Towns among them on every side, inhabited by Malabars, a distinct People from the Chingulays.” (p. 159).

It is important to note that the Tamils were called “a distinct people from the Sinhalese.” To turn back again to his main interpretations, he further said: “These Malabars then are voluntary Inhabitants in this Island, and have a Country here; tho the Limits of it are but small: it lyes to the Northward of the King’s Coasts between him and the Hollander, CorundaWy River parts of it from the King’s Territories. Thro this Country we passed, when we made our Escape. The Language they speak is peculiar to themselves, so that Chingulays cannot understand them, nor they a Chingulays.” (p. 175).

Then Knox referred to their politics saying that “They have a Prince over them, called Coilat Wannee, that is independent either upon the King of Cande on one hand, or the Dutch on the other, only that he pays an acknowledgement to the Hollanders.” It is obviously a strange relationship, the Malabars paying a duty to the King for land and the Prince paying a tribute to the Hollanders perhaps for sparing him from conquering! He goes on saying:

“The King and this Prince maintain a Friendship and Correspondence together. And when the King lately sent an Army against the Hollanders, this Prince let them pas through his Country; and went himself in Person to direct the King’s People, when they took one or two Forts from them.” There is an interesting comparison between the two rulers which should not be stereotyped. To relate only one aspect, “The People are in great subjection under him: they pay him rather greater Taxes than the Chingulays do their King. But he is nothing so cruel…”


The importance or the purpose of relating Robert Knox’s observations about the ethnic differences between the inhabitants of Sri Lanka in the mid or latter part of the 17th century is to understand that there are differences, but those cannot or should not be obstacles for peaceful living. The differences are not absolute either. The differences or related claims should not be used as weapons of subjugating one against the other or creating conflicts among them.

To be sure, Knox does not refer to conflicts among the people, except once when some villagers had attacked a Muslim Mosque given by the King! The King had punished the perpetrators severely. The King had also given permission to build a Church in Kandy but retracted the permit later as it was misused by the Portuguese residents. Apart from Knox’s portrayal of the King as tyrannical ruler, he has also commended him as a promoter of foreign residents. There had been Portuguese, Dutch, English and French residents in Kandy encouraged by the King. He has not shown any obsession against the whites or foreigners except of course their political or economic intrusions. 

Building reconciliation and peace among communities today should be based on the realities of today. What we can get from Knox for our understanding of the ethnic question is also limited. Different authors or records might give different interpretations based on the times, circumstances and individual perceptions. Nothing could be sacrosanct. Who has created this human Babel? This is a perennial question. There can be many theories without a final answer. What is relevant is that the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims have their own respective identities so important to them all.

It is important to note however what Knox observed, “the Tamils as a distinct people to the Sinhalese,” in the same words as they claim today. So be it. Let them live in peace.             

1 He had an excessive practice of capitalization, italicization and punctuation, perhaps was the style of that time, which I have not altered. However, I have altered the alphabetical characters to suit the present day understanding while retaining the old spellings as much as possible. All quotations are from the original, published by the Royal Society in London and Printed by Richard Chiswell in 1681.
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