An intriguing historical footnote teased into epic.
As he did with The Napoleon of Crime (1997), London Times columnist Macintyre (The Englishman’s Daughter, 2002) finds an unlikely hero in a 19th-century American who defied convention and got himself in hot water for his troubles. The man in question was a young Pennsylvania Quaker, Josiah Harlan, who left his comfortable home and made his way to India. There, in the dusty streets of Peshawar, he made the acquaintance of an exiled Afghan potentate who promised him endless wealth and power if only Harlan would lead an army to Kabul and overthrow the usurper. (The potentate added that he would have done so already, but he was “concerned for the safety of the harem, which he could hardly take into battle.”) That was apparently all Harlan needed to hear, and in no time he was charging around in the highest elevations of the Hindu Kush, where he planted an American flag. Long before the arrival of the English in Afghanistan, Harlan was living the fine life of a pale god; in the end, he bore many titles: “Prince of Ghor, Paramount Chief of the Hazarajat, Lord of Kurram, governor of Jasrota and Gujrat . . . Chief Sirdar and Commandant of the invincible armies of Dost Mohammed Khan, mighty Amir of Kabul, Pearl of the Ages and Commander of the Faithful.” Macintyre reasonably suggests that Harlan’s adventures in Afghanistan—which ended thanks to British perfidy—inspired Rudyard Kipling’s great story “The Man Who Would Be King,” save that the real-life tale’s denouement was far less interesting: after scandal-tinged service as a Union officer in the Civil War, Harlan wound up in San Francisco practicing medicine without a license and presumably bragging to whomever would listen about his “sojourn of eighteen years amongst the Pagan and Mohamedan communities of the East.”
Fascinating—and most entertaining—from start to finish.