Daniel Defoe and Robert Knox

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Daniel Defoe and Robert Knox

Flora Bain talks to Katherine Frank, author of Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth.

Flora Bain: Hello, my name’s Flora Bain, Adult Learning Manager at the National Maritime Museum, and I’m here today with Katherine Frank, author of Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth.

Katherine, you were talking today in our lecture series about your book. Do you want to say a little bit more about what inspired you to write about the two characters?

Katherine Frank: Right, well it began as a biography of Defoe, a person who’s impossible to write a biography of, as I discovered, and I became intrigued by Defoe’s own shipwrecks by land, the various disasters that blighted his life, financial and professional and personal. And so this is the seed for Robinson Crusoe.

But I was also interested in real-life castaways, people like Alexander Selkirk and Henry Pitman and Lionel Wafer and others. And I came upon one that really, I found really compelling; Robert Knox, who was shipwrecked in 1659, same year that Crusoe was shipwrecked on his island; and was held captive on Ceylon by the native king there for 19 years. And he eventually returned and wrote a best-selling book about his long captivity.

And we know Defoe owned this book – it was in the catalogue of his books after he died – that was the catalogue of the books that were auctioned after he died – but also he used Robert Knox as a character in his novel, Captain Singleton. And not only that, he borrowed verbatim, long passages from Knox’s book. In other words, plagiarised in Captain Singleton. So it turned into a book about a sort of dual biography and then the amazing fictional character of Crusoe, that the two men created between them.

Flora: The lecture is part of a series on the East India Company; Trade and Empire, which accompanies the new gallery at the National Maritime Museum, Traders, The East India Company and Asia. I wondered if you could say a little bit about Robert Knox’s own story and his connection to the East India Company?

Katherine: Well, Robert Knox was not only a captive on Ceylon; after his father was a captain – an East India Company captain, Captain of an East Indiaman, the Anne – and after Knox escaped when he was 38, he studied navigation and was taken under the patronage of Sir Joshua Child, the governor of the East India Company, and given command of his own ship, The Tonqueen Merchant, and then he made four further voyages for the East India Company. And he was very proud of his status as an East India captain. This in fact had been a childhood ambition; he wanted to go to sea as a child, and he really felt this was the height of what he could accomplish. And he made four voyages for the East India Company with mixed success.

One was an expedition against the Mughal Empire, emperor; and one was a slave-trading voyage. His crew mutinied against him, but he was eventually exonerated of any ill doing because of that. Sadly, his long association with the East India Company ended after about 15 years when the company put a ban on private trading for East India Company captains and officers, and Knox was very bitter then about the Company’s treatment of him, and not being able to trade privately. And he eventually – he ended his association with the company and became the captain of an interloper, the Mary, on his last voyage to the East Indies.

Flora: And of course Robert Knox himself, his story of captivity, I wondered if you could say something about… I think he was – how long was he a captive for?

Katherine: Nineteen years. He was captive for 19 years. Crusoe’s captive – or Crusoe was isolated on his island for 28 years. Alexander Selkirk in contrast for only four years and four months. And the main difference between Knox – well, there are two main differences between Knox and Crusoe – Knox was not all alone on his island. There were Ceylonese people obviously and also other captives, European captives, whereas Crusoe was all alone.

But the really intriguing difference is, they both dwell in these hostile, or alien environments, for long periods of time. And Knox was indelibly changed; he assimilated, he learnt the language, he learned about the people’s beliefs and ideals, and endorsed them. He came to be persuaded that the Ceylonese lived in a healthy, productive way, and he embraced this life, and was radically changed in the process.

Whereas Crusoe on his island remains Crusoe from beginning to end. He doesn’t change at all. It’s the island that has to change.

Flora: And I believe he had a kind of – his own work and trading life on that island as well. You were talking about earlier…

Katherine: Yes, Knox assimilated, he acquired land eventually, he was a moneylender. He probably fathered the three-year-old little girl that he adopted and to whom he left all his wealth and property when he finally escaped.

He traded. He knitted cotton caps, even after he was a quite wealthy man, so that he could move around the island. He had promised his father that he would escape. He probably didn’t want to escape; he loved his life on Ceylon but he had promised his father that he would return to England and tell his brother and sister what had happened to him. And he did sort of reconnaissance journeys as a peddler on the various routes out of the Kingdom of Kandy, and found the least populated and the most obscure ways of getting out of the kingdom. And eventually after several abortive attempts, he did escape to a small Dutch settlement and from there was taken to Jaffna and Colombo and then eventually returned to England.

Flora: Katherine, thank you very much. It’s been fascinating to talk to you today, thank you.

Katherine: Thank you very much.

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