Revealing the Boxer Codex

Jeffrey S. Turley’s translation of the Boxer Codex opens up new avenues of research of Asia in the 16th century.

Naturales_4PROVO, Utah (June 16,2016)—In 1947, famed historian Charles Ralph Boxer bought at auction a 16th century codex – a handwritten book – of unknown origin. Written in Spanish, the manuscript was an anthology of reports and descriptions of the various ethnic groups of the South China Sea. The manuscript was especially notable for the beautiful illustrations of indigenous peoples. Boxer translated a portion of the text and published his findings, and scholars recognized the Boxer Codex as a valuable look at Asia through the eyes of 16th century Europeans.

This last year, associate professor of Spanish linguistics Jeffrey S. Turley, together withGeorge Bryan Souza of the University of Texas at San Antonio, published The Boxer Codex: Transcription and Translation of an Illustrated Late Sixteenth-Century Spanish Manuscript Concerning the Geography, History and Ethnography of the Pacific, South-east and East Asia. The book comes on the heels of over a decade of work.

Though the Codex’s compiler is unknown, the authors of the various accounts that make up the Codex include bishops, sailors, explorers and diplomats, all with an interest in Asian cultures. Their reasons for writing were just as diverse as their occupations. One writer, Dom João Ribeiro Gaio, was the Portuguese bishop of Malacca, located in present day Indonesia. Called the “Rutter of Aceh,” the bishop’s account contained detailed instructions to the Spanish crown on how to conquer the kingdom of Aceh, including intel about a secret passageway into the king’s palace.

In contrast, the descriptions of China were written by a Dominican priest who, in his writing, expressed a strong desire to establish trade and perform missionary work among the Chinese. “He’s one of the very first Europeans to visit China,” Turley said. “And his account is very different. . . . It’s not judgmental at all.” The priest’s accounts include anthropological descriptions of the Chinese government, culture, fashions and basic daily life.

Addressing the Codex’s eclectic nature, Turley said, “It’s kind of a mishmash. . . . Most [accounts] are anonymous, some are authored.” With so many known and unknown contributors, the Boxer Codex required more than just translation; it required in-depth investigation. Together, Turley, Souza and their students produced nearly 2,000 footnotes. The notes include greater detail concerning locations visited, individuals encountered and practices observed, giving readers greater context for their study.

Though portions of the Codex have been translated in the past, Turley and Souza’s is the first complete transcription and translation of the ancient text. This is despite the Codex’s importance to historians, anthropologists and philologists as a primary resource. And those portions that were translated after Boxer’s were found severely lacking.

“There’s a big chunk about the Philippines. The translation was almost laughable, it was so bad,” Turley said, giving an example. “It was done in the early ’60s, and it stood. No one ever really commented on how bad it was. They just assumed that [the translators] knew what they were doing. I think I was the first one to ever go in and study and see what the manuscript actually said. And I was shocked because it was so far off.”

With the help of research students, Turley and Souza transcribed the entirety of the manuscript and translated it, even those portions that Boxer had previously translated himself, giving it a consistent tone and checking for accuracy every step of the way. Turley and Souza were intent on avoiding the mistakes of the past. Turley said, “Now, for the first time, people can read and access it in an accurate way.”

Describing the project’s importance, Turley said, “It appeals to a lot of people in different fields. This material is important for historians and anthropologists. It’s linguistically interesting, so it attracts Spanish philologists. Right there you have enough people in a scholarly community that this will be a pretty important reference.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.