Providing some background and a contrast to Rizal, a prologue is devoted to Isabelo de los Reyes, the author of El folk-lore filipino. Turning to Rizal, Anderson then examines his library and those of his friends to trace the sources for El Filibusterismo, and in particular links to Huysmans' À rebours.
"in his novels the imp-demon of Poe-Baudelaire-Mallarmé became the demonio de los comparaciones haunting the colonized intellectual; Dumas's "sustained dialogues" were remade as urgent debates about the paths to freedom; Sue's panorama of the social structure of Paris was refigured into a synoptic diagnosis of the ills of colonial society, and so on. But nothing shows Rizal's creativity better than the manner in which the avant-garde aesthetic of Huysmans was borrowed from and radically transformed to stimulate the political imagination of young Filipino anticolonial nationalists to come."
The second chapter is an account of Rizal's time in Europe and contacts there, where Anderson locates him in "three worlds". The first was the European political system, dominated by German chancellor Bismarck. The second was the world of anarchists and assassinations. And the third was "cacique" Spain, dominated by the alternating governments of Canovas and Sagasta. Rizal was also involved in schisms among emigre nationalists, involving Marcelo del Pilar and the journal La Solidaridad. Influences from all this can be seen in the characters and events of El filibusterismo.
The third chapter follows Rizal's career after the publication of El Filibusterismo in 1891. Settled in Hong Kong, he contemplated setting up a settlement in Borneo and started a nationalist Liga Filippina but eventually returned to Manila, from where he was sent into internal exile at Dapitan. During unrest in 1896 he returned to Manila but was sent to Barcelona; he spent three days on board and one night in Montjuich prison before being shipped back to Manila, where he was executed by firing squad on December 30th. His exile and execution, and Spanish colonial policy in the Philippines more generally, were intimately connected to Marti's insurrection and the Cuban war of independence.
The final chapter is named after and starts with the Spanish prison fortress of Montjuich, notorious for the torture of inmates, and touches on Fernando Tarrida, Georges Clémenceau, Louise Michel, Ramón Betances, Émile Zola, Michelle Angiolillo the assassin of Canovas. Its other subject is the Philippines following Rizal's execution, down to the American conquest. Among those Anderson highlights are Isabelo de los Reyes, who experienced prison in Spain and returned to become a radical politician, Mariano Ponce, whose letters reveal a global network of correspondents, and Rizal's Japanese friend Suehiro Tettyo, who wrote a novel which drew on Rizal's experiences. (Sun Yatsen and Japanese supporters sent a ship full of weapons and military advisors to the Filipinos in 1899, but it was sunk by a typhoon.)
Under Three Flags is an engaging but occasionally awkward mix of biography, literary criticism and history of ideas — Anderson jumps around and some of his connections seem a little stretched, with his choice of subjects to cover perhaps decided in places by the sources he had to hand. It is accessible without a background in Philippine history and serves as a nice introduction to Rizal and the late colonial Philippines, as well as to aspects of the globalisation of anti-colonial and radical political ideas in the final decades of the 19th century.