Although Gideon Defoe’s An Atlas of Extinct Countries, described by the publisher as “Prisoners of Geography meets Bill Bryson”, is glib and on occasion snarky, it overlays a serious and topical point: what is a country, what are borders and who says so? “Treating nation states with too much respect is maybe the entire problem with pretty much everything,” he writes. “Countries are just daft stories we tell each other. They’re all equally implausible once you get up close.”
Countries die. Sometimes it’s murder. Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it’s because they were too ludicrous to exist in the first place. Every so often they explode violently. A few slip away unnoticed. Often the cause of death is either ‘got too greedy’ or ‘Napoleon turned up’. Now and then they just hold a referendum and vote themselves out of existence… The life stories of the sadly deceased involve a catalogue of chancers, racists, racist chancers, conmen, madmen, people trying to get out of paying taxes, mistakes, lies, stupid schemes and a lot of things that you’d file under the umbrella term of ‘general idiocy’.
Defoe covers ephemeral polities from the world over, but a number of them—from Tannu Tuva and Sikkim to Sarawak and Sedang—lie in Asia. The best-known of these is probably the “Kingdom of Sarawak” and its “white rajah” James Brooke for whom
a lust for adventure, being slightly overdramatic and messing stuff up would be the main themes running through the rest of his life.
Less well-known, but of a piece, is the “Kingdom of Sedang”, set up in what is now Vietnam by Marie-Charles David de Mayréna; it lasted considerably less time than Brooke’s private realm which managed a century of existence. The most quixotic (if that’s the right word) of these adventures’ dreams in the Asia-Pacific was the Republic of Vemerana, reportedly funded by the shadowy, libertarian Phoenix Foundation, which lasted for a few months in 1980 on the island of Espiritu Santo in what was to become Vanuatu.
Tannu Tuva was something more of a real place. Tuva is mostly remembered today for its postage stamps but it was originally part of Mongolia and hence under the Qing. In the turmoil of the fall of Qing Dynasty, it split off under Tsarist Russian tutelage. After the revolution just a few years later, Tuva ended up “independent” as the “Tannu Tuva People’s Republic”, but part of the Soviet Union in all but name. It was finally incorporated into the USSR in 1944 and remains part of Russia. Sikkim, on the other hand, was not an accident of geopolitics and lasted an order of magnitude longer. Defoe chooses to focus not on Sikkim’s long history but rather on Hope Cooke, the American who married the Crown Prince and future (and last) King Thondup Namgyal.
Like some of his protagonists, Defoe lets his predilections (in his case, a desire to be entertaining) get the better of him. He includes the first-millennium Korean Kingdom of Silla for little obvious reason other than to allow him to write:
As origin stories go, it’s not totally convincing. Villagers see an eerie light one evening and head off to investigate. They find a giant red egg, out of which hatches a bouncing baby with a ‘radiant visage’. The glowing infant is anointed as a future monarch, the first of a line that will last for centuries. A kingdom is born. Nearby animals start to dance, Disneystyle.
The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace is treated as little more than a Sino-Christian religious delusion. That the Taiping Rebellion resulted in the deaths of an estimated 20 million people is relegated to a footnote.
Defoe omits some places—such as the “Far Eastern Republic” (which lasted from 1920-22 during the Russian Civil War), the “Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic” (April-May 1918) or the “Republic of Ezo” (1867-69 in Hokkaido) and numerous other Indian princely states—that might have been included. Nevertheless, it is rare for the “The Republic of Formosa” to appear in the same pages as “Republic of West Florida” and Ruthenia. There will be bits and pieces that even the most dedicated collector of historical trivia will likely have missed.
More seriously, the book is a reminder that Asia need not necessarily have become a continent of mega-states. Tuva, Sikkim and Sarawak did not survive, but without the intervention of European imperialism, the map of Asia might today look very different.