C. R. Boxer: An Historian like Few Others

By Adelto Gonçalves

Kenneth Maxwell’s work reconstructs the saga of the English scholar who unraveled colonial life in Brazil and was accused of being a traitor in his own country.

The book Kenneth Maxwell on Global Trends – an historian of the 18th century looks at the contemporary world, published in 2023 in by Second Line of Defense has just been published in hardcover with a preface by this writer, an article from December 2023 (“The new historical eraseen from space: the case of the Middle East”) and two more thought-provoking essays from 2001 (“Trap and blank check: a cautionary note about Bush and Afghanistan” and “The C. R. Boxer affair: heroes, traitors, and the Manchester Guardian”.


Within the limited space offered by a review and due to its undeniable importance for Brazilian history studies, we will only highlight the essay dedicated to the British historian Charles Ralph Boxer (1904-2000), a great expert on the colonial history of Portugal and the Netherlands.

In general terms, Boxer was educated at Wellington College and the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, and was a lieutenant in the Lincolnshire Regiment from 1923 to 1947.

He served in Northern Ireland and, from 1930 to 1933, was a translator in Japan assigned to the 38th Infantry Regiment based in Nara. In 1933, he graduated as an official Japanese interpreter. Removed in 1936 to Hong Kong, which at the time was a British colony, he served as an intelligence officer with the British troops in China. Wounded in action during the Japanese attack on Hong Kong on December 8, 1941, he was taken by the Japanese as a prisoner of war and held captive until 1945, having been tortured.

However, when he was released at the end of the Second World War (1939-1945), he returned to Japan as a member of the British Far East Commission in 1946-1947. During his military career, he published more than 80 books and pamphlets on the history of the East, especially the 16th and 17th centuries. As an army major, he retired in 1947, when King’s College London offered him the Camões Chair of Portuguese, a post he held until 1967. During this period, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London appointed him as its first Professor of Far Eastern History, serving from 1951 to 1953.

When he retired from the University of London in 1967, he accepted a visiting professorship at Indiana University, where he also served as an advisor to the Lilly Library. From 1969 to 1972, he was responsible for the chair of the History of European Expansion Overseas at Yale University. He was a polyglot, as in addition to English, he spoke Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch fluently.


Defined by Américo Jacobina Lacombe (1909-1993) as “the greatest representative of English culture interested in the Portuguese-speaking world”, Boxer is the author of the remarkable Salvador de Sá e a luta pelo Brasil e Angola, 1602-1686 (São Paulo, Companhia Editora Nacional/Editora da Universidade de São Paulo-Edusp, 1973, translated by Olivério de Oliveira Pinto), published in 1952 in London. This work, as Lacombe predicted, has served as a model of construction for many Brazilian historians, “for its method, its accuracy and the art that gives it a palpitating reading tone”.

It should be remembered that Salvador Correia de Sá e Benevides (1602-1686) was a military officer in the Portuguese overseas empire who, during the Restoration War (1640-1668), in the service of the Kingdom of Portugal, distinguished himself in command of the fleet that, in 1647, reconquered Angola and São Tomé and Príncipe, ending the Dutch occupation. He was governor of the captaincy of Rio de Janeiro three times.

In addition to this, there are at least two other works by him that are fundamental to understanding the construction of Brazil: Os holandeses no Brasil, 1624-1654 (Companhia Editora Nacional, 1961) and A idade de ouro do Brasil – as dores do crescimento de uma sociedade colonial (São Paulo, Companhia Editora Nacional, 1963).

What few people know about Boxer’s unhappy life is what Maxwell raises in his thought-provoking essay, starting by calling him a hero in the best sense, a definition that is far removed from the celebrities of sport, cinema or TV. And who, according to the historian, would have been the victim of “old resentments, gossip and jealousies from a post-colonial world that is now working to violate the reputation of a truly complex and remarkable individual”.

Maxwell makes this observation in relation to an article signed by Professor Hywel Williams (1953), a member of the British Parliament, and published on February 24, 2001 in the London newspaper The Guardian, in which the writer recognizes Boxer as “a good soldier and brilliant historian”, who, however, “may have been a traitor who handed over his former comrades in a Japanese-run prison camp in Hong Kong, in a way that undermined the entire British intelligence system in Southeast Asia”.

For Williams, Boxer would have belonged to a generation of British intellectuals who “had embraced Marxist communism on the Soviet model”. And so he would have been “a spectacular example of wartime temptation”. In short, an intellectual who, because of his Marxist background, would have worked as a spy against Western interests.

In the same Guardian, a traditional newspaper founded in 1821 and considered the strongest liberal voice in Britain, Maxwell notes, on March 10, 2001, an article was published in which the American historian Dauril Alden (1926) refuted Williams’ insinuations and accusations, noting that, far from being responsible for prolonging the Second World War, Boxer was the one who said that there could be no greater mistake than to consider that the Japanese military was not deeply rooted in China. “It was the British War Office and Foreign Office who ignored and underestimated the risk,” he said.

Coincidentally, Alden had just written a biography of Boxer that would soon be published by the Fundação Oriente, in Lisbon, under the title Charles R. Boxer – Uma vidaaincomum, soldado, historiador, professor, colecionador, viajante. According to Maxwell, Professor Alden is a “meticulous scholar of the old school for whom solid documentation is the core of historical studies”.

Taking this into account, the newspaper, according to Maxwell, even removed Williams’ article from its website, making it inaccessible, a way of acknowledging that it should not have published that text with slanders and unfounded accusations or without documentary proof against the honor of “the most honorable of men”, a scholar who, for generations of historians from Portuguese-speaking countries, was considered “a true colossus”.


In fact, as Maxwell recalls, Boxer wrote, in more than 350 publications, texts of the highest erudition on the naval wars in the Persian Gulf in the 16th century, the tribulations of the maritime routes between Europe and Asia, drew a brilliant panorama of Brazil at the time of the gold discoveries and the expansion of the frontiers in the 17th century, “a magnificent synthesis of the colonial history of Portugal and Holland, as well as comparative studies on municipal institutions and on race and social relations in Asia, Africa and South America”.

For the historian, Boxer’s work on the life and work of Salvador Correia de Sá e Benevides is one of his best books, as it tells of “the decisive role he played in the titanic struggle between the Iberian powers and the Dutch for hegemony in the South Atlantic in the 17th century”.

Maxwell also recalls that, during Portugal’s colonial wars in Africa, Boxer contested the “luso-tropicalist” propaganda spread by the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970), based on the ideas of Brazilian thinker Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987), for whom “the Portuguese colonizer had no racial prejudices”. For this reason, Boxer was also systematically defamed by the Salazar regime.


Of Boxer’s private life, Maxwell recalls that in Hong Kong, in 1940, he had an affair with American journalist Emily Hahn (1905-1997) which became one of the best-known novels of the 20th century. By this time, however, Boxer had been married since 1939 to Ursula Tulloch (1910-1996). They divorced in 1947. For 70 years, Emily Hahn was one of the most productive contributors to The New Yorker and published 52 books and hundreds of articles, reports and poems. Her affair with Boxer is told in her book China to me: a partial autobiography (1944).

According to Williams, the couple allegedly “collaborated” with the Japanese, which for Maxwell “was just a stretch of the imagination”.

For Williams, Emily Hahn would have been “a feminist and communist sympathizer”, which would reinforce the accusation that Boxer could have acted as a Soviet double agent within the British government. With Emily Hahn, the historian had a long marriage and two daughters.

Maxwell recalls that Boxer always refused to write his autobiography, despite the obstacles and curious events he had to overcome during his life, especially as a prisoner of war.

He also refused various honors and decorations, although he never failed to respond to invitations to conferences. In 1989, at Maxwell’s invitation, he gave an interview to students at the Camões Center at Columbia University, when he said that he loved Japan, despite the dangerous life he had led and the setbacks he had had to face with the Japanese in Hong Kong: “When you’re young, have money and pursue lust like an eagle, you always do,” he added.

For Maxwell, Boxer, who faced three years of captivity, torture and loneliness, was neither a traitor nor a hero, but a “person with an integrity made of granite”.

And who could be defined with one word: stickler, a term that can be understood as applying to “a tenacious and persistent person who has always been in search of the truth”. And which Boxer attributes to Salvador de Sá in the opening of his book about the navigator, whom he calls “a remarkable old stickler”.


Kenneth Maxwell (1941) was director and founder of the Brazilian Studies Program at Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (2006-2008), and a professor in Harvard’s History Department (2004-2008). From 1989 to 2004, he was director of the Latin America Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and, in 1995, he became the first holder of the Nelson and David Rockefeller Chair in Inter-American Studies. He served as Vice President and Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in 1996. He previously taught at Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Kansas universities.

He founded and was director of the Camões Center for the Portuguese-Speaking World at Columbia University and was Program Director of the Tinker Foundation, Inc. From 1993 to 2004, he was a book reviewer for Western Hemisphere Foreign Affairs. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, was a weekly columnist between 2007 and 2015 for the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo and has been a monthly columnist for O Globo since 2015.

He is the author of the classic A Devassa da Devassa (Rio de Janeiro, Editora Paz e Terra, 1977), released in 1973 in England under the title Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750-1808 (Cambridge University Press), his first book. He has also published Marquês de Pombal – Paradoxo do Iluminismo (1996), A Construção da Democracia em Portugal (1999), Naked Tropics: essays on empire and other rogues (2003), Chocolate, piratas e outros malandros (Editora Paz e Terra, 1999) and Mais malandros e outros – ensaios tropicais (Editora Paz e Terra, 2005), among others.


Kenneth Maxwell on Global Trends – an historian of the 18th century looks at the contemporary world, by Kenneth Maxwell, hardcover edition, with foreword by Adelto Gonçalves. London: Robbin Laird, editor/Second Line of Defense, 443 pages, US$ 24.95 (Amazon), 2023. Author’s e-mail: [email protected]


(*) Adelto Gonçalves, journalist, Master in Spanish Language and Spanish and Hispano-American Literatures and PhD in Letters in the area of Portuguese Literature from the University of São Paulo (USP), is the author of Gonzaga, um Poeta do Iluminismo (Rio de Janeiro, Nova Fronteira, 1999), Barcelona Brasileira (Lisbon, Nova Arrancada, 1999; São Paulo, Publisher Brasil, 2002), Fernando Pessoa: a Voz de Deus (Santos-SP, Editora da Unisanta, 1997); Bocage – o Perfil Perdido (Lisbon, Editorial Caminho, 2003; São Paulo, Imprensa Oficial do Estado de São Paulo – Imesp, 2021), Tomás Antônio Gonzaga (Imesp/Academia Brasileira de Letras, 2012), Direito e Justiça em Terras d’El-Rei na São Paulo Colonial (Imesp, 2015), Os Vira-latas da Madrugada (Rio de Janeiro, Livraria José Olympio Editora, 1981; Taubaté-SP, Letra Selvagem, 2015), O Reino, a Colônia e o Poder: o governo Lorena na capitania de São Paulo – 1788-1797 (Imesp, 2019), among others. E-mail: [email protected].

Photo: Robbin Laird

The cover of the book shows historian Kenneth Maxwell in front of the former residence of the Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782) in Golden Square, when he was ambassador to London (1738-1748).

This essay was translated from the Portuguese by defense.info.

The original article can be found here:


And was published on May 15, 2024.