Robert Knox, an English sailor and trader, worked for the British East India Company in the 17th century. Sailing to Persia in 1658, a heavy storm forced his ship to land at Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) where he and some of his men were seized by the locals. It would not be until Knox’s daring escape, some nineteen years later, that he was able to return to England. Whilst detained, Knox surveyed the nature and customs of his captors as well as the flora and fauna of the island and, on his return, recorded his observations and experiences. The account was published in 1681 to a rapturous response leading to French, German and Dutch translations being produced. Housed in the Chapter Library, Robert Knox’s An historical relation of the Island of Ceylon (SGC RBK K.57) remains the earliest detailed account of the natural history and customs of the Sri Lankans written in English.
One illustration, entitled ‘An Execution by an Elephant’, particularly catches the eye, showing an elephant tearing a man (literally) limb from limb. An arm lays strewn in the foreground while a bound man, presumably the next victim, looks on his fate in sheer terror.
In his work, Knox refers to the intelligence and strength of the creatures as well as their remarkable obedience towards their keepers and devotion to their young. The main employment for the captured animal was the public executing of criminals as a warning to other potential offenders.
The severity of the crime determined which mode of despatch was selected. The mood of the presiding King also appears to have been a factor since a certain sense of sadistic pleasure can be detected in the accounts. The victim could be killed instantly, with the elephant stepping on the individual’s head, or the agony of the person could be prolonged since the elephant was trained to crush or wrench limbs from the body.
Alternatively, blades could be attached to the teeth of the beast: ‘they will run their teeth through the body, and then taer [sic] it in pieces, and throw it limb from limb. They have sharp iron with a socket with three edges, which they put on their teeth at such times.’
Execution by elephant was a common mode of capital punishment in South and South-East Asia for thousands of years and it was not until the 17th and 18th Century that the practice began to die out with the expansion of the European empires.
Liz Moody (Archives volunteer)