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To begin at the beginning, Charles Ralph Boxer was born in 1904 to a distinguished British family of considerable means. Educated at Wellington College and Sandhurst, he seemed destined for a military career following a family tradition that had seen Boxers serve in command positions in every British war since the French Revolution. He was posted to Japan in 1930 where he first developed his interest in Portuguese imperial history following the disastrous incursion into Japan in the 17th century. In 1936 he was sent to Hong Kong where by 1941 he was the chief army intelligence officer; wounded in the Japanese attack on Hong Kong he was captured and held as a prisoner of war until 1945 and his entire collection of rare Portuguese-related books was seized by the Japanese for the Imperial Library.* 

After his release he returned to Japan in 1946 where he was able to arrange for the return of most of his books, although a handful were never located. Before the invasion of Hong Kong he had prepared a catalogue of the collection, Bibliotheca Boxeriana, and in 1965 the Lilly Library of Indiana University purchased the entire remaining collection from Boxer – lacking the few missing books including one great rarity. In his catalogue he had recorded the existence of what is still thought to be the only known complete copy of the first edition of Figueiredo’s “Hydrographia” 1608, surely the most important Portuguese manual on navigation of the late 16th-early 17th century and a keystone book in the collection. After retrieving the library Boxer had noted the absence of this book, and the Lilly’s documentation indicates it was not included in the valuation of the collection when purchased.

In the late summer of 2014, I received a letter from a law firm in California asking me to evaluate a book in the estate of a deceased client. I could not determine what they were trying to describe so I asked them to send me the book and it duly arrived, neatly cased in a cloth box. It was the Figueiredo. The book was in virtually perfect condition, and the stamp on the title-page and annotations on the endpaper signed “CRB” indicated it had once belonged to Boxer. After conferring with the Portuguese expert Richard Ramer to confirm this, I asked the lawyer to let me know from whence it came and whether the estate would consider returning it to the Lilly Library where it had been destined to go before being somehow removed from the rest of the library. After some legal ramifications that involved the heirs of the estate agreeing to release any claim on the book, it was sent to the Lilly Librarian Joel Silver in November 2014.

In brief: the book was confiscated as spoils of war in 1941, stolen (by a person or persons unknown but surely bibliographically knowledgeable since it was by far the rarest book missing from the collection) by 1946, sold at some unknown date in the Far East (perhaps Hong Kong or Tokyo, though since the estate had no record of purchase we will never know) to a mysterious Russian with diplomatic connections, married to a Chinese woman, who served the British Royal Court in some secret capacity, and then was inherited by their unmarried daughter probably in the 1960s and willed as part of her extensive estate to some 14 heirs when she died in Santa Rosa California  in mid-2014, sent to me for appraisal, and then returned to the lawyer to await the heirs’ release (or not) of any claim on the book.

I assured all parties concerned that my only interest was to return to its rightful place in the collection from whence it came one of the rarest and most valuable books I have ever handled. It was a profound relief to learn after weeks of waiting that all claims on the book had been renounced and it had been sent to and safely received by Joel Silver at the Lilly Library in Indiana. Perhaps it’s overly sentimental to call survival unharmed after such peregrinations “miraculous” but for me this was an early Christmas miracle as I can only imagine the number of times this book could have been damaged or even lost for ever, or have been inherited by someone with no idea of its importance who could easily have given it away or put it in a garage sale. Where I might have found it… well, I can dream. And I can only imagine how Joel Silver must have felt as he placed it gently and safely in its rightful and final resting place, reunited with its companions after travelling the world for almost 75 years.


See: Charles Ralph Boxer, historian, born March 8 1904; died April 27 2000. The Guardian, May 15, 2000.

* “Boxer's main subjects were the Portuguese and Dutch overseas expansions and rival conquests in Asia, Brazil and Angola, on which he produced more than 350 writings, including a dozen major essays in book form, as well as the classic panoramic text- books, The Dutch Seaborn Empire, 1600-1800 (1965) and The Portuguese Seaborn Empire: 1415-1825 (1969)… As Boxer discovered, the secret of Portugal's longevity as an imperial power was a singular record of repressive and obscurantist rule, aided and abetted by its historic alliance with Britain. And, since the history of Portugal has become intertwined with that of other countries, and Portuguese is the language of Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and St Tome Island, Boxer's pioneering achievement in opening the "musty store-chests" has as much relevance for 180m Brazilians and Africans now rediscovering their past. Boxer was a larger than life figure. His scholarship, both specialist and interdisciplinary, was gained by research and reading - he owned a library of institutional proportions - as well as by experience in his extensive travels.” The Guardian.


ABAA members have many items relating to exploration, navigation, world history, including a great many old maps and atlases...