The Boxer Codex

Hans Hägerdal

The late 16th-century Boxer Codex, a Spanish-language compilation from the Philippines, is far from unknown among scholars of early-modern Asia. However, few have seen the entire text. Since its discovery by the well-known historian Charles Ralph Boxer in 1947, bits and pieces have been translated and published, but not always in an expert way. 

The new translation of the entire codex by Jeffrey Scott Turley, with extensive commentaries by Turley and George Bryan Souza, is therefore more than welcome. It has evidently been a demanding task: the codex runs to 305 double folio pages, with names of locations and persons which are not always easy to decipher. The editing seems to be meticulously and expertly done, although the publisher should preferably have checked it to eliminate a number of typographical errors. The codex has earned justified fame for its numerous artistic illustrations of various ethnic groups of East and Southeast Asia, often the only ones that we possess for the period in question. These illustrations are reproduced in a satisfying way, as are the less well-known ones of Chinese mythical beings and animals.

In a long introduction, the editors discuss the origins and character of the codex. As they point out, it is a composite collection of narratives and descriptions on which several Iberian writers have been at work. The pieces were written at different times in the late 16th century, and the present codex was conceived in Spanish Manila in the 1590s. The main author remains unknown, though some guesses are advanced by the editors. As such, the collection of ethnographic, historical, and geographical data is reminiscent of the famous codices of Spanish America which were sent to Europe as sources of information. Like these codices, The Boxer Codex found its way to Spain, from whence it came into the possession of a noble English family under unknown circumstances. It was auctioned in London in 1947 and bought by Boxer, a keen collector of rare books and manuscripts.

Some of the most interesting parts concern the various ethnic groups of the Philippine Islands: Cagayans, Visayans, Tagalogs, and Moros. The long accounts of customs and mytho-history sometimes have a surprising affinity to modern ethnographic texts, as the writer seems to have listened attentively to local informers. As a scholar of primarily eastern Indonesia, I can draw many parallels to customs in these waters, such as the belief in ancestral spirits and the relatively high standing of women. These customs are underlined by the beautiful depictions which take care to render the specific dressing details and hairstyles of men and women of the ethnic groups. In fact, the illustrations do not merely represent the European view of the Other, since they were apparently made by a Chinese artist in Manila. However, the fundamentally negative view that the writer takes of these peoples is revealed quickly enough. For example, before rendering a particularly fascinating and initiated myth about the origins of the world, the author writes: ‘The beliefs held by the Visayans regarding the origin and beginning of the world are ridiculous, riddled with a thousand absurdities’ (p. 336).

Other parts of the codex have a pronounced utilitarian purpose. This is the case with the extensive rutter of Aceh, written by the Portuguese bishop João Ribeiro Gaio. As a source of geographical knowledge, the piece is highly interesting since it gives the toponyms along the Acehnese coast as they are known nowadays, and provides a circumstantial description of the long-vanished sultan’s palace of Banda Aceh. However, the aim of the entire account is to prepare for an Iberian conquest, the economic gains of which are presented in no uncertain terms: ‘the smallest part of what they [the Southeast Asian islands] produce goes to India and Portugal, and the biggest portion goes to Mecca and other regions of infidels. And once Aceh is pacified, everything will pass through His Majesty’s customs and produce much revenue’ (p. 480). In fact, Gaio provides a very detailed masterplan on how to deploy 4,000 Portuguese soldiers in a surprise attack on the palace compound. Descriptions of Patani and Siam, also by Gaio, have a similar aim; in the case of Siam, Gaio optimistically states that a thousand soldiers will be sufficient to pacify it.

The various parts of this composite work vary widely in clarity and attentiveness. Sections about Brunei and the Papuan Islands contain much original and partly first-hand information, while Japan is surprisingly curtly treated. Sections on Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Malay states are evidently unfinished. Close to the end of the codex, on the other hand, is a richly illustrated catalogue of ‘gods and idols that are worshipped in China’, only part of which have been positively identified by the editors, and an assortment of more or less fantastic animals. The dependence on local Chinese informers and artists for these descriptions and depictions is obvious, again stressing that this is an Ibero-Asiatic and not merely a ‘Western’ vision of Asian cultures. Critically read, the compilation will serve as an almost inexhaustible source of information about partly ill-documented lands in the early days of European overseas expansion.