“At their leisure when their affairs will permit, they commonly meet at places built for strangers and way-faring men to lodge in, in their language called Amblomb, where they sit chewing betel, and looking one upon the other very gravely, solidly discoursing concerning the affairs of the court, between the King and the great men…” – Robert Knox
We are indebted to Robert Knox for recording his observations of 17 Century Sri Lanka, the land in which he spent nearly 20 years as a willy-nilly guest of the Kandyan king. By the time Knox marooned himself here, the island had been exposed to European influences in various forms, mainly of the seafaring Portuguese and Dutch, for more than two centuries. (In comparison, we have been independent for 70 years now)
The first European to have put on paper, from firsthand experience, his impressions of the prevailing social and economic life of the beleaguered kingdom of Kandy, Knox’s “An Historical Relation of Ceylon” is essential reading for a student of our pre-colonial society. Knox wrote the book after escaping from the island and therefore was free of any need to please his former captors. Nevertheless right through the narration there is a discernible empathy for the inhabitants of the island among whom circumstances compelled the adventuring Englishman to make home for a good part of his adult life.
As our opening quote bears out, even then, the people of the island were political animals. The goings on at the King’s court apparently held their keen interest, although the prevailing feudal processes left little room for direct participation. Given that the humble subjects of the small kingdom were affected almost on a daily basis by the caprice of the monarch and his high officials, this perhaps was only a natural measure mandated by the need for self-preservation.
In the existing political structure, their fascination with matters of the Court was evidently limited to passive observation. The democratic impulses, which by this time had begun to stir strongly in Europe, were conspicuously absent in our public life. The imperatives behind the actions of their Kings were not matters that they could comprehend, leave alone challenge. Their deeds in births past had determined the universe they now inhabited, and could never be differently ordered. In fact, this unthinking acceptance of the ageless feudal social order appears to have remained more or less unchanged from the time of King Vijaya right up to 1815 when we went under the venturesome British.
Knox also noted the extremely Spartan existence of the average subject in the Kingdom. “Their dyet and ordinary fare, is but very mean, as to our account. If they have but rice and salt in their house they reckon they want for nothing. For with a few green leaves and the juice of a lemon with pepper and salt they will make a hearty meal”. And their dwelling places “their houses are small, low, thatched cottages built with stick, daubed with clay…” As to the furniture “their furniture is but small. A few earthen pots, a stool or two without backs, for none but the King may sit upon a stool with a back”.
The impression is of an indigent people vulnerable to the whims of both nature as well as their autocratic rulers, inevitably giving rise to a kind of existence that encouraged only minimal expectations and requiring infinite patience in attaining even those. It was a situation, which bred a helpless fatalism, dark superstitions and abject resignation. This bleak image repeatedly comes through in several passages of Knox describing the nature and habits of the people he observed during his enforced stay.
Robert Knox did not think much of the industry or diligence of the native people. “For the Chingulays are naturally, a people given to sloth and laziness; if they can but any ways live, they abhor to work; only what their necessities force them to, they do, that is to get food and raiment. Yet in this I must little vindicate them. For what indeed should they do with more food and raiment, seeing as their estates encrease, so do their taxes also?”
The imprisoned sailor was a clear-eyed observer of the causal inter-play between taxes and economic prosperity. The prevailing system was such that more production and the consequential increase in wealth invited such high taxes that the extra effort was counterproductive. The system trapped the people in to a vicious cycle of poverty.
It is now more than three hundred years since Robert Knox lived in, and subsequently wrote, about what turned out to be the dying stages of the Kandyan Kingdom. Much water has flowed down the rivers Thames and the Kelani since then. Britain, from where Knox came, went on to build a world empire on which it was said the sun never set. Today, the sun has set; Britain has lost its empire, but remains nevertheless a prosperous democracy.
Sri Lanka of course had a very different evolution. A few decades after Knox published his book, the Kandyan Kingdom ceased to be, losing its sovereignty to a far away European King. Internal dissention and the inner corruption of his court had made the situation untenable for our last Monarch. Our strengths, capabilities and ideas stuck determinedly in ancient times, were no match to the burgeoning commercial strength and the modern military prowess of a Europe power.
After living under the British rule for more than a century, in 1948 we became an independent nation with the responsibility of running our affairs in native hands once again. But we now faced a vastly different world from that of 1815. In this new order, we have a modern State structure with regular elections, parliaments, political parties, newspapers, general literacy and a host of other new concepts and institutions which were not even thought about in the times of the Kings. Obviously these new, unfamiliar things demand a vastly different approach to the art of governing. How we have managed our affairs since; bungling, grotesque, is recent history.
While we can see the obvious changes in the form and methodology of governance, there are also features that seem to have not changed much since the times of Knox.
More vacancies for politicians
The people in this land are still very much captivated by matters political, although it is now not necessary to find Ambalams to discourse thereon. Most of the pages of our newspapers are devoted to subjects that would fall into the category of politics and consequently politicians. Many hours of the popular television shows are devoted to politics. In the country, otherwise dilapidated and poorly managed, the number of persons occupied in matters political, is amazingly high. Our small island has, in addition to the national parliament, several provincial level governments, municipal authorities and State run institutions which again create more vacancies for politicians of different hues and shapes. Add to this, the large personal following each politician invariably commands, we seem to have a remarkable percentage of the population in active politics.
The poverty that Knox observed among the common folk of the land is undoubtedly now much reduced. In a democracy there is tremendous pressure on the rulers to ameliorate the living conditions of the voters. The world has become a smaller place and we are well aware of the living standards of other nations, particularly in the Developed world, offering a kind of reference point to the poor nations. According to the Annual Report of the Central Bank, in the Human Development Index Sri Lanka is at a mid-point ranking, although creditable in comparison to the countries of the South Asia, an area of the world noted for its general poverty, is yet way below other developing countries of Asia with similar backgrounds. Considering the promise and the potential we possessed in 1948, we are a country punching much below our weight class.
For Knox also made the perceptive observation “they are a people proper and very well favoured, beyond all people that I have seen in India…” and “in short, in carriage and behaviour they are very grave and stately like unto the Portugals, in understanding quick and apprehensive, in design subtle and crafty, in discourse courteous…”
But potential to be realized needs commitment, discipline and hard work. Knox thought we were given to sloth and laziness, which he attributed to a tax regime which discouraged industry. But certain national traits may flourish with or without a tax!