Tag Archives: Robert Hooke

The high and low adventures of Robert Knox, sailor, prisoner and discoverer of cannabis

Captain Robert Knox (1642-1720)

Among the many books on voyages and exploration in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection is a copy of Robert Knox’s An historical relation of the island Ceylon, in the East Indies. First published in 1681, the work was one of the earliest European accounts of the inhabitants, customs and history of Sri Lanka. How Knox came to write the book is a remarkable tale of adventure, misfortune and daring escapes.

Rajahsinge II, King of the Kandyan Provinces of Ceylon

Rajahsinge II, King of the Kandyan Provinces of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Knox’s jailer

Robert Knox was just 14 years old in 1655 when he first joined his sea captain father on the ship Anne for a voyage to India. Three years later, the Knoxes set sail again for Persia in the service of the East India Company but had the ill luck to run into a storm which destroyed the ship’s mast and forced them to put ashore in Ceylon for repairs. King Rajasinghe II was suspicious of the Europeans’ intentions and ordered the ship be impounded and the Knoxes taken captive along with sixteen member of their crew.

Knox's "Historical relation of the island Ceylon", complete with a glowing endorsement from Sir Christopher Wren and a Preface by Robert Hooke

Knox’s “Historical relation of the island Ceylon”, complete with a glowing endorsement from Sir Christopher Wren and a Preface by Robert Hooke

The sailors were forbidden to leave the kingdom but otherwise treated fairly, with some of the captives eventually choosing to enter the king’s service. Although Knox refused to work for the king, he was still permitted to become a farmer and make a living. Knox senior died from malaria in February 1661 but Robert remained in captivity for 19 long years before finally making a bid for freedom with a fellow crewman. They managed to reach a Dutch fort on the coast of the island and gain passage to the Dutch East Indies, before at last setting sail for home aboard an English vessel.

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The grisly fate which awaited servants who displeased the king; Knox believed, apparently with good reason, that entering the king’s service would result in his death

Map of Ceylon showing Knox's escape route

Map of Ceylon from “Historical relation…” showing Knox’s escape route

Knox returned to London in September 1680, having spent the journey writing the manuscript for a book about his experiences. When published a year later as An historical relation of the island Ceylon, the book immediately attracted widespread interest, influencing Daniel Defoe’s famous castaway tale Robinson Crusoe and turning Knox into a celebrity. He continued to work for the East India Company for another thirteen years after his return, captaining the Tonqueen Merchant for four further voyages to the East which made him a wealthy man.

A yadda or wild man of Ceylon with pipe

A yadda or wild man of Ceylon with pipe

One final strange adventure in Knox’s remarkable life deserves our attention. Having become close friends with the scientist Robert Hooke, Knox often returned from his travels with gifts and curiosities for Hooke. After one trip, he presented the scientist with the seeds of a plant previously unknown in Europe. This “strange intoxicating herb,” which Knox referred to as ‘Indian hemp’ or ‘bangue’, is  better known today as cannabis indica. In December 1689, Hooke gave a lecture to the Royal Society in which he provided the first detailed description of cannabis in English, praising its “very wholesome” virtues and noting that Knox “has so often experimented it himself, that there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter.”

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Life through a lens: exploring the miniature world with Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

I was very happy to come across this 1667 edition of Robert Hooke’s fascinating Micrographia among our Early English collections. Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses was the first book in English about the microscope and comprises a detailed record of Hooke’s observations of plants, insects and fossils through his lenses, and a demonstration of the power of the emerging science of microscopy.

Robert Hooke was born in 1635 on the Isle of Wight and studied at Westminster School before becoming assistant to the chemist Robert Boyle in Oxford. He had very wide interests in astronomy, biology, physics, architecture and chemistry, and, after being appointed Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society in 1662, became arguably the greatest experimental scientist of the 17th century, although Hooke’s legacy has long been overshadowed by that of his more famous contemporary, Sir Isaac Newton.

First issued in 1665, Hooke’s Micrographia was the first major work to be published by the Royal Society and has claims to be the first scientific best-seller, inspiring much public interest in the unseen miniature world. Samuel Pepys went so far as to proclaim it “the most ingenious book that I have ever read in my life”.

Micrographia is best known for its detailed copperplate engravings of Hooke’s discoveries, including several magnificent fold-out plates such as the famous flea below. The book also describes a fly’s eye and a plant cell for the first time (Hooke himself coined the biological term “cell” because the walls in plant cells reminded him of monks’ cells in a monastery).

Hooke’s drawing of a flea viewed under his microscope, “adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed.”

Hooke was the first scientist to examine fossils under the microscope and the first to note the similarities between living shells and fossil shells, which had up to then been considered a type of stone rather than a once-living organism.

Robert Hooke devised and constructed his own compound microscope

He claimed in Micrographia that the fossils were really “the Shells of certain Shel-fishes, which, either by some Deluge, Inundation, earthquake, or some such other means, came to be thrown to that place, and there to be fill’d with some kind of Mud or Clay, or petrifying Water, or some other substance.” More than 200 years before Darwin espoused the theory of evolution by natural selection, this remarkable man had discovered that changes in life on Earth were documented in the fossil record.