The mighty storm on the road of Matlipatan
The sailors’ nightmare on November 19, 1660, exactly 346 years ago, that led to the incarceration of Robert Knox Jr.
In Part IV of his monumental narration, Robert Knox details the incident that led to their capture by the officers of Rajasimha II (1629-1687 AD). The details of the capture of the English sailors of the ‘Ann’ make fascinating reading just as the narration of Knox’s Historical Relations of Ceylon, which quite unwittingly became one of the most informative source books of the seventeenth century Kandyan Kingdom.
The Charter, Captain Robert Knox Sr., of the frigate ‘Ann’ signed with the English East India Company was to sail on the twenty first of January 1657 from the Downs to Fort St. George (present Madras), on the Coromandel Coast and to trade for one year from port to port in India. This was their second voyage to the east. Having completed the assignment the ‘Ann’ was preparing to return to England. Unfortunately the ‘Ann’ could not sell all her goods and to fill her hold for the return voyage within the agreed one-year and that made her come back to Fort St. George. She was directed by the Agents of the Company to trade at Pondicherry. It was on this trip that the English frigate found itself in the midst of that fateful storm which wreaked havoc disabling a number of sea going vessels in the vicinity. Knox’s own words of the ordeal that happened 336 years ago, is as follows.
‘..as we were Lading of Goods to return for England, being in the road of Matlipatan ), Masulipatam), on the Nineteenth of November Anno MDCLIX happened such a mighty storm, that in it several Ships were cast away, and we forced to cut our Main Mast by the Board, which so disabled the Ship, that she could not proceed in her Voyage.’
Thomas Chambers who was knighted later, the Agent of the Company at Fort St. George, ordered Knox Sr. to proceed to ‘Cotiar’ (Kottiar) in the island of Ceylon, which according to Knox Jr. was a ‘very commodious Bay, fit for our present distress’. The ‘Ann’ was to carry a stock of cloth so that she could trade while a new mast was being fitted.
Knox had no idea regarding what was in store for him for the next twenty years of his young life. In fact in the first few days in this commodious sea port on the eastern coast of Ceylon the sailors of the ‘Ann’ had no reason to despair other than being ‘shy and jealous’ of the people of the place. The local Governor, according to Knox, welcomed them. Knox’s own words exemplify these sentiments.
‘…at our first coming thither, we were shy and jealous of the People of the Place, by reason our Nation some Twenty days, and going a Shore and coming on Board at our Pleasure without any molestation, the Governor of the Place also telling us, that we were welcome, as we seemed to our selves to be, we began to lay, aside all suspicious thoughts of the People dwelling thereabouts, who had very kindly entertained us for our Money with such Provisions and Refreshings as those Parts afforded’.
It is also possible that the Captain, Knox Sr., already knew about the pleasant experiences of Captain Charles Wylde of the ship ‘Seaflower’ who had spent several weeks at Kottiar without any trouble on his way to Bantam in 1649, that led Knox Sr. to be rather lax regarding the sailors’ forays into the alien country. The ship ‘Ann’ stayed in Kottiar for about four months according to the Agents at Fort St. George although Knox records the stay as for two months and twenty days.
Rajasimha II, by this time, reigning over the Kandyan Kingdom, was harassed and fatigued by engaging in constant war with the Portuguese for the past several decades. The king was well aware of the premium quality of cinnamon the island was endowed with. He was also aware that this commodity fetched high prices in the European markets. Exorbitant profits were enjoyed by the Portuguese who had a monopoly of the cinnamon trade in the island.
Tho years before Knox was captured the Dutch had replaced the Portuguese in the island. Rajasimha of course had a hand in that. A common saying at the time was that Rajasimha gave ginger and got pepper (inguru deela miris gaththa wagei.) Others such as the English, the French and the Danes too had their eyes on the trade. Rajasimha by now had realize that the island’s produce such as cinnamon, pepper, arecanuts and elephants could bring him and the country immense wealth. But he was unaware of procedures and the tactics of trade and was not at all conversant with how foreign trade could be handled bypassing the Portuguese. Having gone through a period of oppression and exploitation on all spheres by the Portuguese, from his childhood days, Rajasimha’s main preoccupation was to search for ways to get rid of the foreign powers, and particularly the Portuguese at that time. The king needed to find out how other countries, particularly in Europe, tackled similar problems.
He was hell-bent on making his kingdom secure from foreigners who would or could leak vital military information to foreign invaders. The strategy he adopted was misunderstood or misinterpreted by many including Knox. All foreigners who forayed into his kingdom by accident or by design (as ambassadors) were held captive in his own inimitable way. The captives were kept in various locations of the Kande Uda Rata, being fed (but not clothed) by the king’s subjects. Quite a number found favour with the king and even were elected to high office. The king enjoyed their company, had discourses with these courtiers and was keen to hear about the politics, battle craft and social conditions of their respective native lands. He was well aware of the quality of his army who were merely farmers and peasants without any organized training in battle craft but experts in guerilla warfare in inhospitable terrain. They were pathetically vulnerable in the open, facing the superior firepower of the Portuguese soldiers. He was thirsty for new knowledge, which he thought he would get from his European captives.
Having been brought up in the royal house of Maha Nuwara, which at the time, for all intents and purposes, was Portuguese in tradition, Rajasimha II was fluent in the Portuguese tongue, knew Mathematics, bits and pieces of Latin, music, horsemanship, battlecraft and the etiquette of the European courts. The Franciscan friars who were close to his erstwhile mother, Kusumasana Devi, better known as Dona Catherina bestowed these attributes on him. All Senerath’s children and Wimaladharmasuriya’s son received education similar to that of Europe under the Catholic friars who were quite at home in the royal palace.
This upbringing made it easier for the iron-willed monarch to engage in friendly conversation with the foreign captives on varied subjects, often in private, without the help of interpreters. His officers too were well versed in the strategies and tactics of luring foreigners into the kingdom so that they could be added on to the menagerie.. The narration of the events leading to the capture of the crew of the ‘Ann’ at Kottiar highlights the tactics used by the king’s officer to arrest sixteen men, including the captain of the ‘Ann’.
Knox was aware that they erred by not intimating the king about the purpose of their arrival at Kottiar. Anyhow the news of the English ship reached the king in Kandy.
To be continued next week..............