King's College London
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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

Knox on Ceylon

A man sheltering under a talipat leaf, from: Robert Knox. An historical relation of the island Ceylon, in the East. London: printed by Richard Chiswell, 1681 [Marsden Collection J2/1]A man sheltering under a talipat leaf, from: Robert Knox. An historical relation of the island Ceylon, in the East. London: printed by Richard Chiswell, 1681 [Marsden Collection J2/1]Robert Knox was taken prisoner when the East India Company ship, Ann, put in for repairs at Cottiar Bay in Ceylon in 1659, and remained a captive there for nearly twenty years, before eventually escaping to the Dutch controlled part of the island and from there back to England.

On his arrival back in London in 1680 Knox met Robert Hooke who encouraged him to publish his experiences and his observations on Ceylon. The resulting book was the first detailed account of the natural history, religion, language, social life and customs of that island and its people in the English language. In the preface Hooke explained that it was an important part of the Royal Society’s role to add to the sum of knowledge by encouraging such memoirs.

Hooke also presented some of the material that Knox had managed to bring back from Ceylon to the Royal Society, including a piece of talipat leaf, shown here. Hooke and Knox become close friends and, when Knox rejoined the service of the East India Company and was given command of a ship on a trading voyage to Vietnam and Java, Hooke asked him to bring back specimens for the Royal Society. Knox agreed and on his return to London in 1683 brought back various seeds, plant cuttings and curiosities and was awarded three pounds by the Royal Society in appreciation of his efforts. Hooke and Knox continued to collaborate closely and on a later voyage, Hooke had Knox make astronomic and scientific observations for him and the two investigated the medicinal effects of cannabis together.

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