The extraordinary lives of Charles Ralph Boxer (1904-2000)
Charles Ralph Boxer led two lives, each in its own way quite remarkable. First, before WW2 in Hong Kong, he was an intelligence officer who was fluent in Japanese; second, without any academic qualification whatever, in 1947 he was appointed Camões Professor of Portuguese at King’s College London. He was subsequently offered three other professorial chairs in Britain and the US.
Charles was the third son of Major Hugh Boxer of the Lincolnshire Regiment, who was killed at Ypres in 1915. After Wellington and Sandhurst, in 1923 Charles was commissioned into his father’s old regiment. He began a serious study of Portuguese, Japanese and Dutch, and by the time he was posted to the Far East in 1930, he had published 13 articles on Dutch and Portuguese colonial history and was preparing other commentaries for publication.
Boxer was posted to a Japanese infantry regiment in Japan and became an interpreter in Japanese. He became an expert at Kendo, befriended many Japanese officers and even on occasion interpreted for the Emperor himself. He led a fast life and one Japanese remarked that “fluent as he was in Japanese, he spoke it like a geisha”.
As an intelligence officer in Hong Kong from 1936, he performed vital intelligence duties concerning the Japanese invasion of China, while simultaneously retaining his friendships in the Japanese officer corps. He travelled widely in Asia, from Indonesia in the south to Manchuria and Siberia in the north.
In 1937, he met the cigar-smoking American journalist Emily Hahn who was to become his second wife. She recorded his views at the time: “Hong Kong is the dumping ground for the duds…including me,” he said. And again, “the day of the white man is done out here…we’re finished and we know it”.
Her diary of Hong Kong life shows an empty, pleasure-seeking society, hierarchical and deferential, racist in outlook. But Emily’s account does not reveal Boxer’s secret double life. In the little time allowed to him by his professional duties and the social whirl, he was collecting a remarkable library, and was writing tens of articles and his first major work, Jan Compagnie in Japan (1936).
The rapid collapse of the British colonial system in 1941 in the face of the Japanese onslaught came as no surprise to him, and wounded, he spent the rest of the war in Japanese captivity. His knowledge of the Japanese language, of Japanese customs and the friendships he had created with Japanese officers enabled him not only to survive, but to improve the fortunes of many other prisoners.
After his release in 1945, he married Emily in New York, and returning to England as a superfluous army officer, he carried on his scholarship and writing, as well as his book collecting. In 1947, at the age of 43, he resigned his commission and despite having no university education, his astonishing reputation allowed King’s College London to offer him the Camões Chair of Portuguese.
During his 20 professorial years in London, his increasing output of monographs and articles confirmed his stature as the greatest living scholar of Portuguese and Dutch colonial history. His work was meticulously researched, written in a characteristic fast-moving style, alliterative and epigrammatic, with a use of contemporary resources and quotations.
In 1962, Boxer gave a series of lectures on race relations in the Portuguese Empire in which, contrary to Portuguese government propaganda, he maintained that, like other European empires, the Portuguese imperial system was racially biased. These lectures were published in book form, and aroused a storm in Portugal, where he was angrily and spitefully attacked, and he consequently became persona non grata in Portugal. He supported those Portuguese who resisted the Salazar regime, saying he was only doing a duty, adding “I like action – moral courage is much less common than intelligence”.
Boxer retired from King’s in 1967, and subsequently held chairs at both Indiana and Yale, and continued to lecture and produce articles and series of lectures, such as “Portuguese India in the Seventeenth Century”. These lectures were illuminated by quotations from obscure publications, and by his unrivalled knowledge.
The core of Boxer’s work focused on the period 1580-1650, when the Iberians and the Dutch were engaged in what he called “The First World War”. How could a small pre-capitalist society like Portugal not only create a world-wide empire, but also defend it vigorously against the greatest capitalist and maritime power of the day?
In the 1640s, when the Dutch could call on over 10,000 armed ships, the Portuguese could find only 20. How then did Portugal resist with success in Brazil and Africa? Boxer shows that the key to Portuguese success lay in their strong family and institutional loyalties and, above all, to the Catholic religious culture.
On the basis of his immense scholarship and his ability to assimilate and order his material, he was able to write in a format accessible not only to historians but also to the general reader.
Outstanding among his more than 350 publications are The Christian Century in Japan (1951), The Tragic History of the Sea (1959), The Dutch Seaborne Empire (1965), and The Portuguese Seaborne Empire (1969).
In his later years, he made an equivalence between Portugal’s early maritime exploits and the exploration of space. He showed that in both cases, decades of endeavour and resources had been invested, with no certainty of the outcome.
Charles Boxer was offered the CBE on two occasions, and twice he refused. First, after the war, he refused to be singled out among others equally or more deserving. Second, offered the honour for academic services, he refused because there was no longer a British Empire to be Commander of. The achievements of Charles Boxer are breathtaking in their magnitude, and a survey of his life demonstrates how a human being may make the fullest possible use of natural talent and energy.
His biography by Dauril Alden was published in 2001 by Fundação Oriente: Charles R Boxer: An Uncommon Life (Soldier, Historian, Teacher, Collector, Traveller).
By Lynne Booker