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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 743-745

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Charles R. Boxer: An Uncommon Life . By Dauril Alden. Assisted by James S. Cummins and Michael Cooper. Lisbon: Fundação Oriente, 2001. Photographs. Plates. Maps. Tables. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 616 pp. Paper.

Charles Ralph Boxer (1904-2000), whose life is carefully reconstructed in Dauril Alden's handsome book, was one of the last of his kind: a privileged English gentleman, soldier, and scholar who loved to travel, read, write, and collect rare books. This biography, dedicated by Alden "[t]o those who have known and revered Charles Ralph Boxer," is a tribute to this man's life and work by one of his greatest admirers.

Alden is clearly fascinated by Boxer's early life. Born into that stratum of the [End Page 743] British upper middle class that raised their sons to be gentlemen, Boxer was supervised by a nanny until he left home at 10 for a preparatory boarding school. At 14 he matriculated at Wellington, a "public school" favored by army officers, and at 18 entered the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst. After 18 months at Sandhurst, he was commissioned to the British army as a second lieutenant.

Thereafter begin two formative periods in Boxer's life that shaped him as a historian, compensating for the fact that he never studied for a single university degree. Boxer began his military career in the late 1920s, when the peacetime army's limited demands upon its officers gave them "ample leisure to pursue their own interests" (p. 45). Drawn to languages, documents, learned societies, and established historians, Boxer let these be his teachers and his own interests be his guides. He began to read maritime history, collect rare books, correspond with historians, visit archives, and write his first articles. Alden argues that these early articles established the defining characteristics of his writings throughout his career: "[A]n unrivaled mastery of printed sources; selective use of archival materials; careful consultation with the leading experts in the field" (p. 51).

Boxer's period of military service in the Far East—first in Japan as a language officer (1930-36) and subsequently in Hong Kong as an intelligence officer (1937-45)—represents a second formative period. Here Boxer learned Japanese and "gained a firsthand knowledge of the lands and peoples of the East" (p. 58). He also continued to develop his personal library, which already consisted of over six hundred titles. In Hong Kong, Boxer met and married his first wife, as well as his second, American journalist Emily Hahn. Boxer was seriously wounded six days after the arrival of war in Hong Kong in late 1941. Left in the morgue for dead, he miraculously recovered. He also survived an internment camp, where he was arrested by the Japanese for his suspected role in maintaining a secret radio. Following a military trial, he spent 22 months as a POW, including long hours in solitary confinement.

Alden describes Boxer as a different man after the war. He reunited with Emily Hahn and then returned to the Far East to recover his library, which remained miraculously intact. On returning to England, they lived simply in his boyhood home, hoping to be reposted by the army to the Orient. One friend described the once-social butterflies of Hong Kong as "quite changed." The "scintillating conversationalists" of the prewar days were now "always buried behind a book," living in their "own worlds, locked away in their respective libraries, writing away, all day, every day, and seemingly oblivious to anything happening around them" (p. 299). When a new assignment never materialized, Boxer elected to leave the army; fortunately, he had been offered the Camões Professorship at King's College, University of London, in 1947.

One senses in Alden's account an appreciation for Boxer's style. When he lectured, he often injected "barracks-room humor in the midst of serious remarks" [End Page 744] (p. 320), and he hosted with "Boxerian hospitality," treating visiting Luso-Brazilian scholars, students, and academic acquaintances to long lunches at his club...


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pp. 743-745
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Archived 2004
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