Jan 17, 2006

CR Boxer: A Brief Look At The Historian-Spy

(Toledo, OH)“Boxer. B-O-X-E-R. Start with CR Boxer.”

Such was the advice I was given when discussing books to read for an undergraduate thesis on the Portuguese Estado da India. Although I did not know the significance of the suggestion at the time, this was the beginning of what may turn out to be a lifelong research interest in the field of European expansion. What I read in The Portuguese Sea Borne Empire and other works from the Boxer canon inspired me as both a historian and a writer; here was a researcher who could write, and who could write history that met the rigorous demands of the academy while remaining accessible to the intelligent non-specialist.

I have continued to work my way through this massive body of work, which encompasses over 350 books and articles. While certainly one should feel no obligation to read everything that the man wrote, the fact remains that Charles Ralph Boxer is the definitive starting point for any scholar entering historical studies of the Portuguese and Dutch colonial empires, as well as a general course of study in the field of European exploration, expansion, and exploitation of the globe.

Born in 1904 on the Isle of Wight to a family for which military service was seen as a noble calling, Boxer spent many of his formative years in the southern English county of Dorset, living in a country house owned by his grandmother. The third son of Major Hugh Boxer of the Lincolnshire Regiment, he attended Wellington and Sandhurst military academies, aiming for a career in the Navy. However, his dreams of following in the footsteps of his nautically-oriented forbears were dashed when the Navy rejected his application due to poor eyesight. Undeterred, he became a soldier; appointed as 2nd Lieutenant in the Lincolnshire Regiment in 1923, he spent the next twenty-four years of his life in military service. He found time in 1925 to make his first visit to Lisbon, perusing archival collections at Biblioteca Nacional and Torre do Tombo. After the first seven years, which he spent in Northern Ireland, he was stationed in Japan, where he performed diplomatic and military duties as an officer and interpreter; he had demonstrated his gift for languages by rapidly gaining fluency in Japanese. In 1936 he was promoted to Major and placed in Hong Kong, serving the Asian operations of the British Military Intelligence Service.

Boxer’s academic career began in 1926, when he began publication of articles that examined the earliest years of European contacts in Asia. Though never formally trained in a university setting, and lacking an advanced degree, Boxer nonetheless began the writing that would elevate him to the highest pantheons of academia. Most significant among his earliest writings was his 1930 translation of the Commentaries of Ruy Freyre de Andrada. Edgar Prestage had reputedly contracted with the Hakluyt Society to produce an English translation of the text, but the quality of Boxer’s work caused the Society to cancel the Prestage project.

The unique position that Boxer had in Asia allowed him to acquire a library of incredible scope; he procured rare texts, maps, and documents the equal of any university archive. From this treasure trove of resources Boxer began to publish English works without parallel on the rise of the Portuguese and Dutch seaborne empires, including his first monograph in 1936: Jan Compagnie in Japan. He developed important contacts through his work at the British Embassy in Tokyo, including the influential Dutch ambassador Jean Charles Pabst, who shared Boxer’s loves of languages, history, and rare books. During this time, Boxer also married his first wife, Ursula. He described the circumstances of their relationship as being attributed to determinism: “It always happens when one lives in Hong Kong, you know, more than four years. One either becomes a hopeless drunkard or one marries. I did both.”

In December 1941, after having been wounded during the Japanese attack on Hong Kong, he was captured and made a prisoner of war. While in a Japanese concentration camp he dedicated himself to deepening his knowledge of the Portuguese language and Portuguese history; his period of imprisonment and concurrent lack of adequate medical care for his war injuries left him with a partially disabled left arm and hand. He also gained, however, a new relationship: his highly-public affair with the American Emily Hahn, a correspondent for the New Yorker.

After the war and his release from captivity Boxer traveled to New York; he and Hahn were married under the glaring lights of the American media. They returned to England in 1947 to open their house in the country, just outside of Dorset. Though technically still in the army, Boxer had no official post. He spent his first months back buried in research and writing; he described this period of his life in the following manner:
Since I agree with Mr. W.S. Lewis that “the collector’s work is only partly done when he has formed his collection: until it is used, it is like bric-à-brac in a cabinet,” this book has been written mainly from the resources of my own library.
Also in 1947 Boxer was appointed to the Camões Chair of Portuguese Studies at King’s College in London. While surprising in that he held no university education, Boxer was offered the position based on the advice of Edgar Prestage, who recognized the tremendous scholarship of the self-taught historian. He lacked, however, formal teaching experience; he was assisted by a number of lecturers more skilled in the pedagogical arts. Newitt recounted an anecdote, which he considered of questionable veracity, in which Boxer – worried about his inexperience in teaching Portuguese – was told by the chair that the students could always go and learn the language at the Berlitz School.”

His lack of formal academic credentials undoubtedly gnawed at Boxer throughout his illustrious career; one can only imagine the unspoken stigma attached to a person who has achieved success without the official stamp of intellectual approval. University politics are cruel enough when one has a PhD from a “lesser” school, and must be doubly so when a prestigious chair is occupied by someone without any degree. Conscious of his separateness, he occasionally commented at formal academic gatherings that he was just “the man who called about the gas,” a reference to his business suit standing out in a sea of purple and scarlet gowns. He earned, over the course of his academic career, honorary doctorates at the Universities of Utrecht (1950), Lisbon (1952), Bahia (1959), Liverpool (1966), Hong Kong (1971), and Peradeniya (1980).

Given the hundreds of scholarly works that Boxer produced during some seven decades as a historian, one might be tempted to conclude that his record as a teaching professor might be less than stellar; during his tenure at King’s College that saw Boxer sometimes published two books per year and as many as thirteen journal articles in a calendar year. However, students of Boxer generally described the professor as an excellent mentor, and he was legendary for always having an open door for visitors. Sinnappah Ararasaratnam, who had Boxer as his dissertation advisor, said that “Charles has been one of the formative influence of my life…and I owe what little I have achieved…to his initial encouragement and subsequent constant support.”

Boxer spent over twenty years at King’s College, producing scholarship on a Herculean scale. He defied the trend toward specialization, with research interests that spanned continents, although he rarely strayed from the Portuguese and Dutch empires. However, it was his interest in the matter of relations between the races that sparked a long feud with the Portuguese government of Dr. Antonio Salazar.

In 1962 Boxer gave a series of lectures at the University of Virginia that attempted to assess the Salazar-inspired belief in the supposed benign nature of Portuguese relations with indigenous peoples. On the contrary, Boxer built a strong case for the idea that the Portuguese could be every bit as racist as other European interlopers. This, of course, did not go over very well in Portugal; Boxer was reviled by the Salazar administration, and Portuguese scholar Armando Cortesão called the book O Livro Insidioso. Despite the persona non grata status in Portugal that he incurred because of his stance, Boxer steadfastly refused to accommodate the regime, arguing “I like action - moral courage is much less common than intelligence.” Boxer would ultimately triumph, being awarded – after the fall of the Salazar regime - the Order of Santiago da Espada and the Grand Cross of the Order of the Infante Dom Henrique.

After his retirement from King’s College in 1967, Boxer began another career as a sort of traveling academic, holding chairs at Yale and Indiana Universities in the US. He edited collections, presented papers at conferences, and corresponded with scholars around the world. He was elected vice-president of the Hakluyt Society, and a member of the Council of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. As acknowledgement to the extraordinary scholarship and influence of Boxer, King’s College named its Chair in History in the Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies after him.

Preceded in death in 1997 by his beloved wife Emily, Charles Ralph Boxer died on 27 April 2000 at the age of 96. Some researchers begin the process of becoming obsolete before their books hit the press, while others live to see the relative decline in the usefulness of their work while they finish out their years on the beach of some forgotten retirement community. Boxer, however, remains relevant after his death, and will likely continue to influence generations of historians well into the 21st century.


Hooda Thunkit said...



I was impressed by the sheer amount of work that Boxer seemingly "churned" out. Besides being exceedingly scholarly in his writings, he was notably prolific!

This story just reinforces, for me, the belief that formal education isn't necessarily the only measure of a person's ability/worth, but is the “normal” standard by which we judge and are judged, sometimes to “our” regret…

A Breathtaking Post!

Well done ;-)

historymike said...

Thanks, Hooda. This was an excerpt from a lengthy (30 page) paper I wrote on Boxer.

One of the great things about this historian is that he was so accessible, and that he wrote with an eye toward a general reader.

He also owned a tremendous collection of rare historical documents that he acquired during his years abroad. Most historians spend a lot of time in archives; Boxer more often than not just went to his own private collection.

Amazing man.