The Man Who Would Be King: the First American in Afghanistan by Ben Macintyre

FSG  2004  351 pp. $25.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford  


Well before we began bouncing the rubble about in Afghanistan, Rudyard Kipling told the tale of a British subject who ventured beyond the Hindu Kush into the arid and poor regions of Afghanistan, making himself a king in the process.  Ben Macintyre has woven an absorbing tale of the man on whom the story was based, an American, not a Brit, who became, among other things, Prince of Ghor.

Joshiah Harlan was a pacifist, abstemious Pennysylvania Quaker stricken with a profound case of wanderlust.  Born in 1799, master of Latin, Greek, and French by his teens, he became engaged to Elizabeth Swaim in 1822.  Almost immediately thereafter he journeyed to India, where he enlisted as a physician with the Halliburton of its day, the British East India Company, whose cozy relations with the British government made it the de facto representative of the Queen.

While in India, Harlan learned that Elizabeth had renounced their engagement—and Harlan—for another man.  Heartsick, he felt no urge to return to America, and so began years of wandering about northern India and Afghanistan.

In 1824 during the Burma War, the untrained Harlan gained valuable experience in attending to the wounded, but he was not cut out for Army life.  Macintyre notes that, “One of the many contradictions and Harlan's personality was his insistence on strict military discipline among his subordinates, while being congenitally incapable of taking orders from those ranking above him.”

Indeed, Harlan was not one for personal relationships other than those spawned of mutual self-interest.  Yet, in Karnal, north of Delhi, “he discovered a soul mate who would become his ‘most faithful and disinterested friend.’  Looking back, Harlan wrote that this companion ‘rendered invaluable services with the spontaneous freedom of unsophisticated friendship, enhancing his favors by unconsciousness of their importance.  He accompanied me with unabated zeal throughout the dangers and trials of those eventful years.’  His name was Dash, a mixture of red setter and Scottish Terrier, a dog whose fierce and independent temperament matched Harlan's exactly.”

Leaving The Company, Harlan traveled to Ludhiana, in northern India, where he met the deposed monarch of Afghanistan, Shah Shujah al-Moolk.  Owing to the polygamous ways of the aristocracy, kings produced scores of half-brothers who grew into natural and fierce enemies, resulting in a bewildering and ever-changing set of alliances among warring brothers.  Shah Shujah enlisted Harlan to travel to Kabul, stir up resistance to the current ruler, Dost Muhammad, and pave the way for the Shah’s supposed triumphal return.

From 1828 onward, Harlan became involved in a series of Byzantine alliances among Afghanis, Sikhs, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and others, training first one army, then after the dissolution of an alliance, the opposing army.  Over time, Harlan became as fierce and feared a warlord as any native to the area.

Ejected from Afghanistan and India by the British, he returned slowly to America,  following a suspicious and unexplained side trip to Russia.  In 1842 Harlan set down his thoughts in A Memoir of India and Avghanistaun.  “Far from being a memoir, it was a diatribe, a furious denunciation of British imperialism in general, and the failed Afghan policy in particular.”

Such was the fury of his attack and the fierce negative response to the book that Harlan found himself unemployable, both as a writer and as a diplomat.  In America, he found himself a stranger in a strange land.

“He had arrived in Afghanistan as a feringhee [foreigner], utterly convinced of his cultural and moral superiority, but slowly, first as a visitor in a spy, then as a courtier, … now as a prince, he had absorbed, and been absorbed by, the civilization he once disdained.  At least one half of Harlan was now Afghan.  He wore Afghan clothes, spoke their languages, and understood their traditions.  Yet he was still a Westerner.” 

No businessman, Harlan failed in a series of commercial ventures, losing what capital he had managed to acquire in a series of oddball schemes.  He participated briefly and humiliatingly at the head of a Civil War brigade: competent to raise an army of Afghani bandits and British deserters, he lacked the technical and interpersonal skills to lead American men into battle.

Fleeing an unsatisfactory marriage, in 1871 Harlan died in San Francisco, a man forgotten.

In Josiah Harlan we find, “a wild West to figure in the far wilder East, who had achieved a peculiarly American feat by voyaging over the sea to terra incognito and making himself a King.  And yet, in his own country he was entirely unknown.”   Ben Macintyre brings his strange and obscure story to life in an entertaining and informative narrative.