We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Boxer, Charles Ralph (1904–2000), historian, was born in Sandown, Isle of Wight, on 8 March 1904, the second son of Hugh Edward Richard Boxer (1871–1915), army officer, and his wife, Jane, née Patterson (1876–1929). Educated at Wellington College (1918–21) and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst (1922–3), he was commissioned in the Lincolnshire regiment in 1924. After the opening of Japan to the wider world there had been a family connection with that then little-known country, which fascinated Boxer from boyhood. Consequently he was happy to be seconded to a Japanese regiment from 1930 to 1933. This began his lifelong quest to understand the East. He later served in Hong Kong, where he was chief of army intelligence from 1939 to 1941. On 8 June 1939 he married Ursula Norah Anstice Tulloch (1909–1996).

On 20 December 1941, during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, Boxer was wounded in action and left with a permanently crippled arm. He was a prisoner of war from 1941 until the end of the war. For much of the time he was kept in solitary confinement. Of those grim years he would say only ‘At times, I even prayed’ (personal knowledge). Yet he harboured no resentment against his captors, whose victim he was, but whose admirer he remained. Though he was a man of granite integrity, some misinterpreted his magnanimity, and after he was safely dead he was accused, in an article in The Guardian (24 February 2001), of having been a Japanese collaborator. Surviving fellow prisoners and colleagues were outraged, and thanks to their protests an article in the same paper (10 March 2001) quickly set the record straight.

In 1945 Boxer was divorced as a result of his widely publicized love affair with the American feminist writer , with whom he had had a daughter before the invasion of Hong Kong. On 28 November the same year he married Hahn in New York. They had a second daughter, and the marriage lasted fifty-two years. In 1947, on the grounds of disability, he retired from the army with the rank of major. In that same year he was surprised by the offer of the Camoens chair of Portuguese in King's College, London, a post he held until retirement in 1967, except for two years (1951–3) as professor of the history of the Far East in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. From 1967 until 1979 he was research professor in Indiana University, and simultaneously (1969–72) professor of the history of the expansion of Europe at Yale University. In 1972 he retired from there as emeritus professor. After leaving the army he lived on the family estate in Broadmayne, Dorset, until 1955, when, in order to be nearer London, he moved to Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, which was his last home.

Even in his lifetime Boxer was something of a legend. He was forty-three when, without a degree to his name, he was catapulted into academia by the offer of the first of five university chairs in different subjects ranging from Portuguese and history to Dutch. These offers were not eccentric since even before the war ‘Captain Boxer’ was widely known in academic circles through more than eighty scholarly publications. His early interest in Japan led him to the study of the first Europeans to contact that strange culture: the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Jesuits. In turn, this led him to international history in the broadest sense, both geographically and topically. The author of some 350 books and articles, his contributions to scholarship were recognized by election to the British Academy (1957) and a cascade of honorary degrees and fellowships. He twice refused official honours on principle, believing, with Wellington, that ‘a soldier's duty is to deserve medals, not to get them’. In 1969, though an agnostic, he accepted a papal knighthood conferred for services to Catholic mission history. A lifelong bibliophile, he possessed an internationally known rare-book collection which was seized by the Japanese in 1941 for the Imperial Library in Tokyo. After the war he was able to recover most of his books, including the jewel of his collection, the sixteenth-century ‘Boxer codex’ (a manuscript with seventy-five drawings by an unknown Japanese or Chinese artist depicting the peoples of the China Sea). The bulk of his collection, including the Boxer codex, later came to be in the Lilly Library, Indiana, together with all his papers.

To the academic community Boxer brought a breath of fresh air, though his salty style sometimes disconcerted common rooms and startled committee meetings, for despite his background and patrician bearing he was something of a subversive who ignored convention and liked to deflate pomposity. He had little sympathy for the pretensions of the old imperial order, and he rejected any sense of European superiority. He was too little of a sentimentalist to be invariably mild, but to his numerous students he was unfailingly encouraging, imparting to them his own enthusiasm, and his belief in humanity and fairness. His pathbreaking approach to problems old and new inspired two generations of scholars in Europe and the United States.

In his last years failing eyesight ended Boxer's writing, but believing that ‘old age is not for softies’ he bore the trial in accordance with the stoical principles learned from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, to which he was introduced in prison camp. Shortly before his death he learned that the Charles Boxer chair of history had been established in King's College, London. He died at a nursing home in St Albans, Hertfordshire, on 27 April 2000 and was cremated at St Albans in May. He was survived by his two daughters, his second wife having predeceased him.

J. S. Cummins

Sources  

D. Alden, Charles R. Boxer: an uncommon life (2001) · E. Hahn, China to me (1987) · ‘Bibliography of C. R. Boxer’, Portuguese Studies, 17 (Nov 2001), 247–76 · K. Cuthbertson, Nobody said not to go (Boston, 1998) · The Independent (29 April 2000) · The Guardian (16 May 2000) · Daily Telegraph (13 June 2000) · WWW · personal knowledge (2004)

Archives  

Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, MSS · King's Lond., papers |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. relating to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph (13 June 2000) · photograph, repro. in The Independent (29 April 2000) · photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£978,859: probate, 20 Oct 2000, CGPLA Eng. & Wales