Dismal Nationalism

Harvard University Press
5 min readMar 23, 2023

Tim Harper’s Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire tells the dramatic story of the shadowy networks of revolutionaries across Asia who laid the foundations in the early twentieth century for the end of European imperialism on their continent. Underground Asia was a Financial Times and Economist best history book of the year, and Sunil Amrith called it “The most gripping work of history I have ever read.” To celebrate the publication of the paperback edition, here is a brief excerpt from the book.

Scattered assaults on empires continued across Asia. There were reports in April 1915 of a Chinese man trying to tempt the exiled Burmese prince Mingoon Min in Saigon into a rebellion in Burma and Bengal, with the promise of a throne; and that the Germans in China were recruiting Buddhist priests to preach sedition in Chinese temples in Malaya. Independently of these matters, word reached Hong Kong via the Canton press that an attack was planned on British officials at a service of intercession to be held at the cathedral on 4 August. A new Chinese anti-Japanese boycott broke out in Singapore, as Chinese merchants refused to ship supplies to Japanese residents in Malaya, and the situation was contained only by the continuing state of martial law. Vietnamese radicals in Siam were encouraged by the Germans to wage war on the frontiers of French Indochina. But the man most likely to lead this, Phan Boi Chau, still languished in prison in south China. Like many in this situation, he turned to poetry:

Still the patriot, still the gentleman on the move,
With legs tired out, I come to rest in prison.
At once the homeless guest of the four seas,
And a wanted man on all five continents.

He also wrote a patriotic novel and a searching memoir of his struggle. He remained in contact with the outside world through his Cantonese cook, and his followers were active among local rebels and pirates in the border regions. They were encouraged by the brief reappearance of Prince Cuong De in China in 1914, although by late May the following year he had once again taken refuge in Japan. He lived quietly in Tokyo, surrounded by barely a dozen survivors of the ‘Journey to the East’ of ten years earlier.

Tonkin was under martial law, and a state of war was extended to Cochinchina in February 1916. Governor-General Sarraut’s much vaunted plans to encourage the Saigon press were placed under notice. As the harshness of war conditions began to bite, in early 1916, remnants of the Can Vuong movement launched strikes on French positions along the Mekong. In the early hours of 15 February 1916, a flotilla of cargo boats arrived in Saigon docks, and armed men sprang from them to attack the city prison in an attempt to break out the leader of the failed uprising of 1913, Phan Xich Long. The attack was soon rebuffed, but its scale panicked the French authorities, and provoked the execution of fifty-one men by firing squad, the leaders watching as their followers were shot six at a time, before their own turn came. On the night of 2 May 1916 loyalist gentry sprang the boy emperor Duy Tan from the citadel at Hue, but only got as far as a Buddhist temple south of the city, where they were quickly overcome by Foreign Legionnaires. Duy Tan joined his father in exile on France’s remote Indian Ocean outpost of Réunion. These skirmishes failed to coalesce into a concerted challenge to French rule, still less a popular uprising; the main centres of anti-colonial agitation remained abroad, in Siam, China and France itself. But they weakened still further the hold of the monarchy on Vietnamese political thinking, or at least the indignity of the treatment of the court nourished a popular sense of shared suffering.

A palpable sense of millenarian expectation lingered in the air. The attackers in Saigon wore the robes and talismans of adepts of cults of invulnerability. In the Malay state of Kelantan on the east coast of the peninsula, an uprising in the isolated district of Pasir Puteh in May 1915 was inspired by a charismatic preacher called Tok Janggut, ‘Old Man Beard’. Although it took the form of a tax revolt, its leaders were wealthy men defending their local prestige against interlopers. They displayed an opportunistic awareness of outside events. Captured rebels testified that the British empire was coming to an end (a view shared by the Sultan of Kelantan himself) and Singapore would fall to rebellion. European troops had fled and so it was possible to drive the white man out. The British had to rely on the uncertain loyalty of the Malay States Guides to crush the unrest. Tok Janggut was killed and his body exhibited publicly, although there were some locally who never believed in his death. In a similar way, a rebellion the following year in Jambi in Sumatra was also a reaction to the recent imposts of colonial rule and ignored the local royal court; its leaders looked instead for Turkish ships and scoured the sky for the arrival by aeroplane of a leader of the Sarekat Islam — as a messiah or as a son of the ‘Raja Stamboul’, or Ottoman Sultan. Communal riots in Ceylon in 1915 also reflected the slow spread of pan-Islamic sentiment, such as the wearing of the fez among the coastal Moors of the island, where the famous Egyptian rebel Urabi Pasha had spent his exile since 1883. Disputes over religious processions combined with economic tensions from wartime profiteering to produce whispers that Muslims were about to attack Buddhists and that the Kaiser would appear with the Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala as his high priest.

There was, however, no evidence of direct German, Turkish or Indian meddling in cases like these. Local communities did not need direct external prompting to frame their actions in broader terms. Their struggles were shaped by rumour; but these rumours did not spring from nowhere: they were the product of longer-term arguments between people participating in wider networks that encompassed others far distant and often very unlike themselves. Above all, these rebellions seemed to mark the passing of the relative equilibrium and fluid tolerance of the old Indian Ocean world.