The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan
by Ben Macintyre
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 351 pp., $25.00
Americans were supposed to go west, at least if they were young. West, wrote Arthur Chapman, was where the handclasp was “a little stronger” and the smile dwelt “a little longer.” In “The Long Trail” Rudyard Kipling suggested one could run “East all the way into Mississippi Bay,/Or West to the Golden Gate.” Then, at any rate, the poet’s East was West.
Going east meant writing stories in Paris or taunting bulls in Pamplona. Unless you were a missionary, it did not mean going to Asia and living among the “heathen.” It did not imply a taste for camels and palm groves, or a yearning for the spicy smells of a bazaar. It did not hint at a compulsion to cross deserts and admire the Bedouin, wanderers of incessant sands. Getting seduced by the “mystique” of the Orient was a European hobby, and usually an English one.
In 1888, at the age of twenty-two, Kipling published “The Man Who Would Be King,” a story of two swashbuckling adventurers who cross mountains and deserts to carve themselves out a kingdom in central Asia on the borders of Afghanistan. The swashbucklers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, are British, and so are the actors, Sean Connery and Michael Caine, who played them in John Huston’s film of Kipling’s tale. In fact it is altogether a very British story—except that the man who appears to have been Kipling’s prototype was an American, who led an Asian existence more extraordinary and exotic than any character in British fiction.
Josiah Harlan was a Quaker from Pennsylvania who in 1820, at the age of twenty, went east all the way to China. On his return to Philadelphia he fell in love, got engaged, and planned to marry Miss Elizabeth Swaim after his next voyage to the East. In Calcutta, however, he learned that his fiancée had married someone else, news that made him vow never to return to America. So he joined Britain’s East India Company as a military surgeon, served in the first Burmese War, and acquired the most important companion of his life, a fierce and intrepid mongrel called Dash.
But Harlan’s reading and his dreams turned him away from India’s northeastern frontier toward the northwest. He left the company and, after his services had been rejected by the Sikh ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, he visited Shah Shujah, the exiled monarch of Afghanistan, and offered to restore him to his throne in Kabul. It was the first of many brazen acts in an eastern odyssey that lasted a dozen years.
Until now Harlan has been a forgotten figure because his autobiography was never published and its manuscript seemed to be lost. But Ben Macintyre, a former foreign correspondent who knows Peshawar and Afghanistan, discovered a large chunk of it in a box in a small museum in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He has thus been able to recreate the life of a man who, in the lengthy …