Curriculum History

Vast Anti-Imperial Conspiracy

Reading Underground Asia broadened, deepened, and challenged my understanding of revolution and anti-imperialism in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Few 800+ page books leave me wanting more. Underground Asia did. In fact, I acted on the impulse by downloading Priyamvada Gopals Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, which Harpers footnotes. Underground Asia describes the lives of women and men engaged in international, revolutionary agitation in opposition to empires. The revolutionaries span so much much physical and social space that there are many fascinating characters on the edges of the narratives in the book. I enjoyed and took much from learning about the central characters in the book—the men ultimately known as Ho Chi Minh, M.N. Roy, and Tan Melaka—along with the many characters who crossed their paths or who were on similar journeys.

Anti-imperial resistance interests me as an important topic in World History; and, in part as a child of the late Cold War (the Berlin Wall fell during my student teaching), I have an ongoing fascination with the Russian Revolution. Underground Asia connects myriad people and events related to these topics across much more time and space than I had previously imagined. Reading it broadened, deepened, and challenged my understanding of revolution and anti-imperialism in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Connections Across Time and Space

From the outset, even before reaching the table of contents, the reader sees the global nature of the underground networks in the form of three maps showing the travels of Ho Chi Minh, M.N. Roy, and Tan Malaka. If anything, these maps filled with criss-crossing lines understate the global connections shown within the book which documents similarly wide-ranging travels for several other radicals, such as the Indian revolutionary Har Dayal whose travels to London, Berkeley, Algiers, and Martinique among many locations. As Harper explains his subjects:

The itineraries of these dangerous men and women converged repeatedly in some of the most monumental events of the twentieth century as seen from the west: the two world wars and the rise of communism. But they often experienced this history through a very different lens, a different sense of time and place, and as a different kind of story altogether: that of a contest between western empires and their most dedicated opponents, fought across the globe by a generation whose intertwined lives gave their experience a unity. Theirs were some of the first truly global lives of modern times, and their ideas were distinctive in the extent to which they were forged by the experience of global travel and exile.

Harper, Tim. Underground Asia (pp. 19-21). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.
Propellers for RMS Olympia, 1911. Via Wikipedia.

Despite my frequent classroom statements that global connections in the past were more extensive than we think, I can still be surprised by the range of global networks. I have taken to showing students this image of giant propeller blades to impress upon them how large some steamships in the early 20th Century were. Transoceanic telegraph cables relayed messages around the world for the last third of the 19th Century.

Underground Asia also extended my time frame for considering international anti-imperial networks before the First World War. and the establishment of the Comintern in 1919. Since reading Antoinette Burton’s Trouble with Empire with a great group of World History teachers a few years ago, I have stressed how resistance was always a part of modern empire building. Harper broadens this by describing how anarchism provided an ideological connection for international networks, especially ones based in Guangzhou and Japan, plotting anti-imperialist violence during the first decade of the 20th century. While I have not incorporated this material into class in any systematic way, the outrageous details of some incidents have made their way into discussions.

In 1908, French authorities in Viet Nam thwarted a revolutionary plot, after Vietnamese cooks added hallucinogenic plant material, from devil’s snare, to the meals for 200 French soldiers. Rebels planned to seize control of Hanoi infrastructure while the soldiers were stupefied, but a conspirator gave the plot away in confession with a French speech. The colonial state cracked down on all manner of expression and executed thirteen Vietnamese. The colonial response generated more revolutionary activity.

Colonialism could not escape the logic of its own violent beginnings.

Harper, Tim. Underground Asia (pp. 48-49). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition

Later, in 1912, Indian revolutionaries attempted to assassination of the British Viceroy with a bomb while he was in a ceremonial procession riding in a howdah on a caparisoned elephant (159-162). Anti-colonial violence in India also creates context for discussing swaraj before Gandhian satygagraha. Too often, we make facile distinctions between armed struggled and negotiated anti-colonialism, when we can let students in on the fact that it was often both even when one came to predominate over the other.

Asking Different Questions

Priya Satia historian of Imperial Britain, makes an important, and unfortunately very necessary point in a recent article: imperialism is among the topics in history for which teachers should not ask students to balance pros and cons. Satia explains how imperial rule in India was inherently illegitimate and that the so-called benefits it offered Indian people were generally tools of exploitation. She closes by claiming that

[I]t is time for our schools, too, to honor those who suffered under colonialism by ceasing to ask descendants of that era to suffer the harm of participating in the ethical travesty of justifying its violence.

Priya Satia, One Tool of “Critical Thinking” That’s Done More Harm Than Good, Slate

I could not agree more. Additionally, these pro/con exercises rarely require students to think critically. Most often in my experience textbooks simply list supposed benefits along with costs to colonized people. Students filling in a T-chart of positive and negative effects of imperialism are mostly likely transcribing, not analyzing. As a historian Satia has a deeper critique. Claiming that technological diffusion from metropole to colonies was a benefit of imperialism “rests on a fallacy of counterfactual history,” because it presupposes that similar technologies were alien to colonized people and would never have appeared there otherwise.

Lately, I have hearing more than usual amount talk about presenting “both sides” of topics in social studies classes. This always brings to mind the sentiment attributed to Boss Tweed that he did not mind elections, as long he did the nominating. Acts of revolutionary violence described in Underground Asia offer teachers an opportunity to nominate some new perspectives. I am not endorsing violent anarchist propaganda of the deed. By presenting a debatable colonial response, assassination, students should see colonialism from the perspective of the colonized even if they understandably recoil from terrorism. Next year I may ask students if French violence in Vietnam justified attacking agents of the colonial state with hallucinogens? Or, if British brutality in India justified throwing bombs at the Viceroy as he rode with his wife on an elephant driven by an Indian? These are harder questions that could produce more thoughtful answers.

It’s Complicated

Other stories in Underground Asia expanded and complicated my understanding in which I am already trying to engage studentss, especially global developments from 1919 that students in my class investigate. Harper’s descriptions of Indonesian anti-colonialism were largely new to me, including the origins of Indonesia as term. One detail confirmed my prior understanding of 1919.

Speakers in the Volksraad [consultative assembly of Indonesians] voiced their demands for full budgetary powers and ministerial accountability in the language of self-determination that was common to the global moment inspired by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. But what selfhood was to be determined in the Indies? What were its common ties, and where did its boundaries lie?

Harper, Tim. Underground Asia (p. 322). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

Overall, Underground Asia challenged my understanding of anti-colonialism in Southeastern Asia by describing the radical resistance rooted in Islam and later communism, exemplified by the extraordinary, and previously unknown to me, career of Tan Malaka.

Harper similarly reinforced and expanded my understanding of how the establishment of the Comintern in 1919 catalyzed revolutionary anti-imperialism in the 1920s. Underground Asia documents many people moving in and out of Moscow. He also establishes this node of the revolutionary underground continued transnational process initiated by revolutionary anarchists before the Russian Revolution.

Communist International, the magazine, 1920. Via Wikipedia

I use this image from Comintern magazine when discussing the communist turn in anti-colonialism with students. (Most students need prompting in order to see that the chains the worker is striking are binding the globe). The Comintern and the imperialist response to it suggest that history teachers should move the origins of the Cold War earlier, before the Second World War. We also need to consider how colonized people contributed to its development. Odd Arne Westad’s global history of the Cold War makes the former point strongly while hinting at the latter. I want students to see the impact of the Cold War around the world, and which should also mean considering its global beginnings. As Harper notes in his conclusion:

Seen from the underground, time is loosened further, and the history of what later became known as the ‘global Cold War’ takes on a longer duration, with its beginnings in the Bolshevik panic across empires in the 1920s, or even back in the earlier struggle against international anarchism. This protracted conflict is a window on the experience of human movement in the twentieth century, its ebbs and flows, surveillance and obstruction.

Harper, Tim. Underground Asia (p. 654). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

I am still wrestling with how to incorporate this into class. Harper also weaves together events showing 1926-1927 as a revolutionary turning point, which complicates and extends my presentation of 1919. I may also consider presenting a Leninian moment as anti-imperialists looked to the Bolsheviks example to inspire and galvanize revolutionaries in violent resistance.

Underground Asia highlights how imperial apparatuses of control also contributed to drawing a global color line at the turn of the twentieth century.

.At the cold heart of liberal visions of free trade and progress was a ruthless global and racial division of labour. Europeans monitored movement obsessively, enumerating and marshalling people towards their mines, plantations and households. Colonial regimes’ ability to control subjects beyond their own borders, often in the name of exercising ‘protection’ over them, became a yardstick of their authority and a challenge to their prestige.

Harper, Tim. Underground Asia (pp. 62-63). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

White settlers in Canada, the United States, and Australia often reinforced global segregation through extralegal action.

On Labor Day in [1907], a white mob in Bellingham, Washington, turned on the many Indians who had found work there. Many of the migrants were locked in the police station for their own protection, and around 200 of them were chased out of town. They made their way forty miles up the railway line to British Columbia, looking for sanctuary, but walked into a further wave of anti-Asian violence that erupted in the Chinatown and Japantown of Vancouver. When the SS Monteagle arrived there three days later with 914 ‘Hindus’ – mostly, in fact, Sikhs – on board, it was blocked from docking by a mob.

Harper, Tim. Underground Asia (p. 176). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

I have only known about these incidents and the tragic saga of the Komagata Maru since reading Erika Lee’s valuable The Making of Asian America last summer. Students often know about about the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment when they come to my classes, and should be able make connections with the violent exclusion of South Asians incidents. These incidents also show the fundamental illegitimacy of imperial rule

Photograph of South Asian men onboard the Komogatu Maru while detained in Vancouver before being forced to leave Canada. Image from the LIbrary and Archives of Canada via Wikipedia.

Connections like these made Underground Asia a compelling read. One to which I am sure that I will return looking for material and anecdotes for class. Although a survey class can never accommodate even a fraction of the stories that Harper marshals, it is always worth pointing out to students that the past was complicated, even if we do not have time to explore all nuances.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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