The smoke had barely cleared over the narrow body of water that separated Tsushima Island from the Japanese mainland but the Battle of Tsushima Strait was already making headlines around the world.
For the first time in modern history, an ‘oriental nation’ had defeated a great power in battle.
Japan was, just fifty years prior, a feudal nation governed by warlords and samurai. But its rapid modernization after the Meiji Restoration saw it quickly become a regional power, one that was capable of defeating the great Russian empire.
But Japan did not just defeat the Russians (it completely annihilated them), she also set into motion an irreversible chain of events which would inspire revolutions across the global south.
In the dying embers of the Ottoman Empire, a young soldier named Mustafa Kemal celebrated Japan’s victory ecstatically. He would spend the next decades of his life trying to bring about the reforms that Japan had enacted to modernize its country to the Ottoman Empire and in doing so found the modern nation now known as Turkey. The Turkish know Mustafa Kemal by another name, Ataturk.
In London, a young Jawaharlal Nehru greeted the news of the battle with excitement and later remarked it was the first time that he thought it was possible that India could overthrow the yoke of British oppression. Nehru would go on to be India’s first prime minister. (Read Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire for an excellent account of this)
Mohandas Gandhi, living in white-ruled South Africa at the time of the battle, wrote philosophically about the Japanese victory. Gandhi’s later would write that Tsushima played its part in inspiring him to lead India to overthrow the British.
Sun Yat Sen, who was in London at the time of the Battle, drew on lessons learned by the Japanese in trying to modernize his own country. He wrote in his memoirs of being buoyed by the news of Japanese victory and on his way home celebrated the victory with Arab port workers in the Suez Canal.
WEB Du Bois, the great African-American intellectual, wrote that the Japanese victory was a victory for oppressed people everywhere and spoke of ‘colored pride.’
In South East Asia, U Ottama, one of the founding fathers of Modern Myanmar, was so inspired by the victory of the Japanese at Tsushima that he moved to Japan for years.
Similiarly, Phan Boi Chau, one of the intellectual leaders behind the Vietnamese independence movement, moved to Japan for four years after the battle of Tsushima straight, so inspired was he by the battle.
Phan would become a mentor and inspiration to Ho Chi Minh.
Like the other leaders of the day, King Chulalongkorn of Siam was inspired by the events at Tsushima Strait.
For years, the French and the British had exacted heavy territorial concessions and unfair trade deals with Siam.
The French and the British almost went to war in 1893 over who would get Siam as a colony. According to telegrams sent by the foreign office to Queen Victoria, the British government asked Victoria to ask her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany if he would support them in an eventual war against the French “over the Siamese question.”
While the British and the French eventually agreed to a deal which would see Siam keep her independence, the lesson was not lost on Chulalongkorn who recognized the need to modernize his nation.
But until 1905, the majority of modernization attempts made by the Siamese government involved inviting foreign teachers and mercenaries to teach in Bangkok or the buying of equipment made in the west.
Seed for Revolution
Only after the Battle of Tsushima Strait, did the Rama V and the royal court realize the greater need to invest in individuals and the intellectual capacity of its non-royal leaders.
As a result and in an attempt to copy ‘the Japan model,” Siam began sending its military and civilian leaders abroad for training and expertise. Programs and scholarships were started for lawyers, doctors, engineers, military leaders, and civilian administrators. These programs would continue for the next three decades and educate hundreds of civil servants.
Among those educated by the program was Pridi Bhanomyong and Plaek Khittasangkha (later to be Luang Phibulsongkram).
Dozens of other leaders of the Siamese revolution of 1932 were also educated by the program. And while Pridi and Phibulsongkram were much too young to remember the events of Tsushima Strait in 1905, the legacy of the battle upon the history of Siam (and all of Asia) is undeniable.