The end of Europe's empires has so often been seen as a story of high politics and warfare. In Tim Harper's remarkable new book the narrative is very different: it shows how empires were fundamentally undermined from below. Using the new technology of cheap printing presses, global travel and the widespread use of French and English, young radicals from across Asia were able to communicate in ways simply not available before. These clandestine networks stretched to the heart of the imperial metropolises: to London, to Paris, to the Americas, but also increasingly to Moscow.
They created a secret global network which was for decades engaged in bitter fighting with imperial police forces. They gathered in the great cities of Asia - Calcutta, Singapore, Batavia, Hanoi, Tokyo, Shanghai, Canton and Hong Kong - and plotted the end of the colonial regimes with ceaseless ingenuity, both through persuasion and terrorism. Many were caught and killed or imprisoned, but others would go on to rule their newly independent countries.
Drawing on an amazing array of sources, Underground Asia turns upside-down our understanding of twentieth-century empire. The reader enters an extraordinary world of stowaways, false identities, secret codes, cheap firearms, assassinations and conspiracies, as young Asians made their own plans for their future.
Underground Asia is a monumental and magnificent study of anti-colonial revolutionaries who forged solidarities across the globe to mount a connected onslaught against the British, French, and Dutch empires. Written with verve and panache, this is riveting narrative history at its very best that would evoke the envy of the finest novelists.
Tim Harper's Underground Asia is a marvel of a book. I have never seen anything like it. Harper has the storyteller's gift. He makes connections across space and time and race and place that most people can't dream to emulate. No one understands the warp and weft of the absolute powder-keg explosion of the beginnings of nationalism in Asia writ large better than Tim Harper.