"To subdue and crush the masses of a nation by military force,.... is to attempt the imprisonment of a whole people: all such projects must be temporary and transient, and terminate in a catastrophe." : Josiah Harlan, 1799-1871 - First American in Afghanistan
Recently, in quick succession, I read two books about Afghanistan. One, "The Kite Runner", a best selling novel by the Afghan born Khaled Hossseini, is perhaps known to many readers. The other, "The Man Who Would Be King", by British writer and journalist (The Times, London) Ben Mcintyre is a historical non- fiction which reads like a work of fiction. Mcintyre' book is the biography of the first American believed to have entered Afghanistan, where he fought wars, retraced Alexander's footsteps in Central and South Asia and even became a "king", under circumstances both amazing and amusing. It is widely believed that Rudyard Kipling's famous eponymous short story (made into a film by John Huston, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine) was based on the life of this early American adventurer.
The Man Who Would Be King is the improbable life story of American Josiah Harlan, a young Quaker from Chester County, Pennsylvania. In 1822, Harlan, an earnest young man of twenty two, robust in health and florid in his imagination, set out to seek a new life with nothing more at his disposal than a love of adventure, history (especially the exploits of Alexander the Great of Macedonia) and botany. His journey began in Philadelphia and landed him in Calcutta, India, by way of China in 1824. In India he enlisted as an assistant surgeon in the army of the East India Company (the precursor to the British Raj) although the only medical knowledge Harlan possessed came from a medical manual he read during his ocean crossing. After being injured during battle in Burma, Harlan obtained his discharge from the Company's army and traveled to northwest India and Afghanistan, seeking to realize his fondest dream - to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great.
For several years, Harlan crossed and re-crossed the border between India (now Pakistan) and Afghanistan. In a political climate, where every man was spinning in a private orbit of political ambition, alliances were made and broken with dizzying pace. Harlan played the field on several different sides with the keen eye of a mercenary. He accumulated considerable wealth, acted as a doctor and a governor to a powerful Indian king, sided with and opposed the British and conspired for and against several Afghan aspirants to the throne.
Between the years,1837 -1839, Harlan returned to Afghanistan for the final and most eventful of his journeys. By this time he was thoroughly enamored of this rugged and dangerous land, spoke the local languages fluently, dressed in Afghan garb and sincerely admired the Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed, who made him his military advisor. On behalf of the king, Harlan undertook a grueling expedition across the treacherous Hindu Kush Mountains. His mission, to subdue a particularly pesky and unscrupulous Uzbek warlord, based in the vicinity of Balkh, a central Asian town closely associated with Alexander of Macedonia. The dual purpose of serving his friend, the king, and traveling in Alexander's footsteps made it a doubly attractive venture and Harlan performed his duties with aplomb and joy. His impossible mission was successful and somewhere between leaving Kabul, defeating the enemy and his return to the capital, the Quaker from Pennsylvania became the Prince of Ghor, the ruler of the Hazaras ! It was to be the most momentous event in Harlan's already interesting life.
Josiah Harlan returned home to Pennsylvania after 22 years of high adventure and in his own mind, as an Afghan "king". His first order of business upon returning home was to write and publish a bitter diatribe against the British imperial design in the Indian subcontinent. He continued to write prolifically but could never again publish another book, including his memoirs. His first book caused so much uproar and anger in Britain that the American publishers did not want to take another chance with Harlan's writings. Disappointed, Harlan spent the rest of his life as a mill operator, a "civilian general" in the Union army during the Civil War, got married and had a daughter. But he had left his heart in Afghanistan and longed to return there and claim his "kingdom". To that end, he tried to convince the US government to finance his trips to Afghanistan as a "camel procurer and a grape agent"! But Harlan never did return to his kingdom which was as much a geographical place in a far away land, as it was a fantasy in his own mind. He died a poor and lonely man in San Francisco in 1871. Among his meager belongings which were returned to his widow, were a "fine golden sword, an ancient miniature ruby engraved with the image of Athena and a sheaf of yellowing papers in Persian script, which were the royal warrants of an Afghan prince".
Josiah Harlan's life story reads like a fairy tale adventure with echoes in the present. An American, leading military expeditions through Jalalabad, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Bamian and Kabul - places most American first heard of after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. The Afghanistan of the 1830s was not too different from Afghanistan today - invasions by Western powers, widespread unrest, sporadic and precarious peace and warlords running amok. Harlan, the mercenary prince and early imperialist, faced the dilemma of all occupiers - either the colonizer must shed his own humanity in order to oppress fellow humans or he must acknowledge the humanity of his enemy. For Harlan, the second path prevailed and the "pompous prince" began to see the colonization through the eyes of the colonized. His observation is as true today as it was more than one hundred fifty years ago - "To subdue and crush the masses of a nation by military force,.... is to attempt the imprisonment of a whole people: all such projects must be temporary and transient, and terminate in a catastrophe." In the end, Harlan reverted to what he was brought up to be in the progressive and tolerant Quaker community of his youth - a Jeffersonian American who militated at the outrage of "offense against liberty".
Note: Although I enjoyed this book very much, I hesitate to make a general recommendation of it. One woman's cup of tea in this case may be another person's valium. But those who are curious about exotic and obscure stories of the past with lessons for the present, will enjoy it. If you don't want to own a copy, check it out at the library.
Update: This review first appeared in November of 2005, less than a month after I had launched the blog. A couple of days ago I went back to the archives for it because a friend inquired about The Man Who Would Be King. At the time of its first posting, A.B. readership was much smaller than it is now. Many of our current readers may not have seen the article. Unlike political and cultural news, most book reviews are not time sensitive. I decided therefore to bring the post to the front for those readers who found A.B. at a later date. The book is one of my favorites and I really enjoyed reviewing it.