Everybody knows about Ahab, the nutty Quaker captain of a whaling ship, but Ahab was one of the Nantucket Quakers, a notably boisterous subset of the sect. Josiah Harlan (1799-1871), on the other hand, was born on a quiet prosperous farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. His father had been a Philadelphia Quaker merchant who had accumulated enough funds to settle out in Newlin Township. They were strict, plain dress Quakers. Never mind that Chester County now has the horsey set, with one of the highest per capita incomes in the country, and a local version of Silicon Valley crowding into space. In the early 19th Century, Lewis and Clark days so to speak, this was the home of plain and serious Quakers. Not where you would expect to find the future King of Afghanistan, the real-life model for Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King.
In these days when Afghanistan intrudes into our news and local boys are getting killed there, we must be indebted to Ben Macintyre for his recent book The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan And for the research which went into it, including finding Harlan's papers in the Chester County Historical Society. Macintyre is an experienced writer for the London Times who relates more about the famous massacre of 15,000 British (only one person survived) than we get from The Great Game, which purports to be more serious history.
The Man who Would Be King
You almost have to read Macintyre's book twice to absorb all the unfamiliar names and to be prepared for the astonishing happenings recorded in it. John Huston made a movie in 1975 about this tale, but Harlan provides material for a dozen movies. In short, Josiah Harlan's father arranged for him to be the supercargo (commercial officer) of a merchant ship which landed in Calcutta. He had told one Eliza Swaim that he would marry her when (if) he came back, presumably prosperous. But he jumped ship in Calcutta in 1822 after he got a Dear John letter via his brother Richard (a physician with the University of Pennsylvania who remains notable for his huge collection of human skulls). Apparently deciding he was going to show Eliza a thing or two, he joined the British East India Company long enough to learn some military skills, and then set out for Afghanistan disguised as a local holy man. Along the way, he became an official for the Maharajah of Punjab, the Vizier for the King of Afghanistan, and led an army over the Hindu Kush into what was called Ghor, now more or less Uzbekistan, becoming the King, with documents to prove it. The Hindu Kush is a ridge of mountains a thousand miles long, containing a couple of dozen peaks over twenty thousand feet high. This Harlan was a real adventurer, and probably an outstanding confidence artist, working his way to the top of countries where it was common to have fifty hangings in a morning. Just staying alive for 19 years in that environment was an achievement. The British sent a fifteen thousand man army into the area to conquer it for the Queen, and only one single solder, who happened to be a physician, survived.
And then, Harlan came back to Chester County and spent 30 years writing books and starting projects, like raising camels and growing Afghan grapes. He accumulated piles of gold in the Orient, but the only way to get it home was to convert it into letters of credit and send it to his sister to invest. Somehow in the process, he ended up broke. But then came the American Civil War, where he raised a regiment in Philadelphia called Harlan's Light Cavalry, making himself its colonel. Whereupon all the officers found him so intolerable they petitioned to have him replaced and were upheld by a court-martial. But the old sociopath in him turned that upside down, and nearly got all those rebellious officers hanged for mutiny. He developed some pulmonary disease, possibly tuberculosis, and ultimately died in San Francisco. According to the newspapers, he had been practicing medicine without a license there.
Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the Chester County Society of Friends had read him out of a meeting, quite early in these exciting adventures.
The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan