Auguste Edouart: Silhouette of Josiah Harlan, 1843

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 catalog of inspired and reckless nineteenth-century adventurers, can be compared to Richard Burton and Charles Doughty. It is a far more adventurous tale than the one invented by Kipling: its twists and tensions and dangerous escapades make it more like a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson or John Buchan or Rider Haggard.

Shah Shujah lived under British protection in India with a vast harem and an entourage of courtiers whom he kept in line by periodically cutting off their ears and noses. Astonished by Harlan’s offer, he asked him what he wanted in return. His potential savior replied, with an effrontery that rarely deserted him, that he wished to rule Afghanistan as Shujah’s vizier. Still more surprised, the royal exile agreed to these terms and later in their relationship awarded him the titles of “the King’s Nearest Friend” and “Companion of the Imperial Stirrup.”

With a motley band of armed followers, the American set off for Kabul on a mission designed to determine how the current ruler, the brutal but able Dost Mohammed, could be overthrown by the brutal but idle Shujah. Harlan might have been killed several times before he reached his destination, for he was arrogant and provocative. But bluff and bravado and the ferocity of Dash won against potential enemies who vastly outnumbered him. He even managed to disguise himself as a Muslim pilgrim returning from Mecca despite the fact that he spoke little Persian and no Arabic. When a mullah asked for a piece of religious wisdom, he pretended to be deep in pious thought.

Yet Harlan was not just a blusterer like Kipling’s Dravot. He was a fine botanist, an expert on gardens who planned to write a natural history of Afghanistan. Arrested in Peshawar and taken to a sultan who seemed tempted to kill him, he paused to admire the peach blossoms and the beds of hyacinths “silently and sweetly perfuming the breeze.” He disliked the Uzbeks not only because they were slave traders but also on account of the “little attention” they “bestowed upon the elegant in horticulture.” Yet he usually became attached to the peoples and cultures he was living among: he made friends in Kabul; he loved the bazaars and the shifting racial mix of Peshawar.


Harlan boldly arrived in Kabul and set about subverting the existing regime. He conspired with the ruler’s brother and, although abstemious himself, accompanied him on a week-long bacchanal that even Omar Khayyam would have been proud of. He turned down a job as military adviser to Dost Mohammed, the man he was planning to overthrow, a refusal that understandably incensed the Amir. As usual Harlan seemed to be taunting death: had his correspondence with Shujah been intercepted, torture and execution would have been the consequence. Yet while still plotting against him, Harlan came to realize that Dost Mohammed was a skillful and popular ruler who would not be overthrown by Shujah unless the British intervened on the side of the exiled monarch.

After his mission was over, Harlan returned to the Punjab and once again sought employment at the court of Ranjit Singh. This time “the Lion of the Punjab” was more amenable and offered him the command of a brigade. But the American, a crafty bargainer with an almost limitless belief in himself, held out for more—and got it. Appointed to the governorship of Gujrat—where a British army later eliminated the Sikh state—Harlan joined the collection of shady foreigners in Ranjit’s service. But he was less corrupt and a good deal less savage than the Italian adventurers employed by the Lion.

Harlan was a capable administrator but more useful to his new employer as a diplomat. In 1833 his old boss Shujah made a pact with Ranjit in which he agreed to cede Peshawar to the Sikhs in return for permission to march an army across the Punjab and fight Dost Mohammed for the throne in Kabul. Shujah was defeated at Kandahar—he ran away while the battle was in progress—and the Sikhs grabbed Peshawar. The enraged Amir of Afghanistan demanded its return and, upon Ranjit’s refusal, marched with a large army through the Khyber Pass. The Sikh Maharaja did not want a bloodbath, even though he was almost bound to win, and appointed Harlan as his personal ambassador to the Amir. His orders, Ben Macintyre writes, were “to find out Dost Mohammed’s intentions, establish terms on which he might be prepared to withdraw, and buy time for the Sikh forces to consolidate, while fomenting dissension among the Kabul chiefs and between the amir and his brothers.”

Harlan’s performance as ambassador demonstrated the man’s extraordinary talents and character: tact, intelligence, deviousness, and an invincible self-confidence. To his adversary, Dost Mohammed, he was not only his enemy’s emissary but a suspected conspirator against his throne and a man who had had the impudence to refuse an appointment at his court. Even worse, he now helped to convince the Afghans that they would be better off retreating through the Khyber Pass rather than risk annihilation by the Sikh army. Before pulling his forces back, the Amir took his revenge by kidnapping the ambassador and placing him in the custody of his brother. But Harlan had already persuaded the brother to change sides, and he was quickly set free to return to the Sikh camp. In the art of double-dealing he needed no lessons from anyone.

The American felt, understandably, that his reward should have been the governorship of Peshawar, a city he much liked and where he had first enjoyed an Afghan steam bath. He was rather bored in Gujrat, which was insufficiently dangerous, and he was lonely also after the death of his dog Dash. Ranjit, however, gave the post to someone else and thereby initiated the decline of their relationship. The two men quarreled over medical treatment (one of Harlan’s jobs was physician at the court of Lahore), a stallion belonging to Harlan (which Ranjit coveted), and claims by Ranjit that the American was secretly a forger. As usual the angry Harlan behaved toward a despot in his own country as if they were equals but for once decided it would be wise to make a quick exit across the border.

The American’s next choice of employer was entirely typical: the man he had been intriguing against for years, the man who had recently kidnapped and threatened to kill him. But he and Dost Mohammed had long admired each other and now they shared a hatred for Ranjit and a desire for vengeance. The Amir appointed him commander of his troops and made him one of his closest companions. The two of them stayed up into the small hours, smoking hookahs and telling stories; they rode around the Afghan countryside, lounging in gardens while drinking tea and listening to musicians. Harlan was one of only four men permitted to share the Amir’s rug—and the other three were Dost’s relatives.


The most Kiplingesque moment of Harlan’s career was in 1838, when his employer appointed him to command some of his newly trained troops in an expedition against Murad Beg, an Uzbek slave trader and tyrant who was threatening the Amir’s northern territories. The campaign gave the American the excitement of following the footsteps of Alexander the Great, who more then two thousand years earlier had pursued another tyrant into the Hindu Kush. It also gave him the opportunity of becoming a monarch. Arriving among the Hazara tribes, principal victims of Murad’s slave raids, he came to an agreement with the Prince of Ghor, paramount chief of the Day Zangi Hazaras, stipulating that, in return for Harlan’s help, the Prince would cede the principality to him and retain only the office of vizier. Until recently one might have treated the story with appropriate skepticism. But in one of the most remarkable discoveries in the history of biography, Macintyre has managed to find the royal agreement with Harlan, written in Persian, witnessed by a holy man and signed on the Koran.

Harlan set off immediately from his principality to confront Murad at Kunduz. On the way he liberated some of his new Hazara subjects, who had been enslaved and incarcerated by another Uzbek brigand, and then, with his usual blend of military and diplomatic skills, he compelled the posturing Murad to capitulate without a fight. Fortified by success and an even greater feeling of invincibility, he then made a rare mistake, returning to Kabul too early in the year over the almost impossible passes of the eastern Hindu Kush. Nevertheless the new Prince of Ghor struggled back, frost-bitten and snow-blind, to the capital in the expectation of a splendid welcome. Dost Mohammed, however, had other things on his mind.

During Harlan’s absence the British government in India had decided that now was the time to restore the ineffable Shujah to the Afghan throne. It was one of the most stupid—and in the end embarrassing—decisions in the entire annals of British diplomacy. Afghanistan later became a part of what Kipling called the Great Game, a buffer state between the British and Russian empires, but at the time it should have been nothing of the kind. Russian expansionism had not got beyond the northern end of the Caspian, while British India still had a buffer in the Sikh state, which did not begin to crumble until after Ranjit’s death in 1839. There was no need to treat Afghanistan as if it were a vital interest from which Russian influence had to be completely excluded. Yet the Calcutta government, headed by Lord Auckland, forced the Amir to choose between the British and the Russians, provoked him into choosing the Russians, and then marched to Kabul to dethrone him. Dost Mohammed was not alone in wondering why “the rulers of so great an empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country.”

The British duly reached Kabul, put Shujah back on the throne, and, by a wonderful display of diplomatic crassness, military ineptitude, and sweeping insensitivity, united the local population against them. Their forced withdrawal three years later led to the army’s annihilation—only one man in the retreat, a surgeon, survived—followed by the murder of Shujah and the restoration of Dost Mohammed.

Josiah Harlan observed the British aggression with rage and amazement. The invaders could have profited from his wisdom and knowledge of the country. They could have used him as a diplomat; they could have learned from him about the tribes. But they saw him as a troublemaker and sent him on his way. Afghanistan’s American prince left the country for the last time in 1839 at the age of forty.

Harlan was in no hurry to return to his other country, staying for periods in Britain and Russia before arriving in Philadelphia nearly two years later. In 1842 he published A Memoir of India and Avghanistaun, a vicious and uncompromising attack on British policy in which he described the extinction of the occupying army as “the retributive justice of an avenging Deity.” Such was the uproar created by the book that he was never able to publish another one, not even the autobiography he had already written. Why this should have been the case is not quite made clear by Macintyre. One can understand why some British publishers rejected it but not why all the American ones turned down a manuscript which, to judge from the excerpts reproduced here, would have been easy to sell to the public.

Restless and unsatisfied in his homeland, Harlan searched for proj-ects that would take him back to Afghanistan. He became camel consultant to the US government and tried to persuade it that camels were needed for military purposes in the Wild West. The government was persuaded of the need for camels but not of the need to send Harlan all the way to Kabul to acquire them: they could be more easily shipped from North Africa and Asia Minor without his help. In the event the animals proved worse than useless, scaring cattle, mules, and horses, and they were soon dispensed with.

Harlan followed up his report, Importation of Camels, with another, On the Fruits of Cabul and Vicinity, With a View to the Introduction of the Grape-Vine of that Region into the Central Climate of the United States. This time he suggested he should go to Afghanistan as the government’s vine collector and predicted a “grape rush” that would cover the Midwest with Kabuli vineyards. This splendid idea was thwarted by the outbreak of the Civil War, to which he reacted in predictable fashion by raising a regiment for the Union and quarreling with all his officers. Less typically, he became too ill to do any fighting and was invalided out of the army. After the conflict he wandered rather aimlessly around the country, ignoring the wife and child he had acquired late in life, and died in San Francisco at the age of seventy-two.

It’s a “ripping yarn,” as we used to say, and Macintyre is an excellent narrator, describing with skill a spirited and fast-moving life. He is such a partisan of his subject that one sometimes feels that all the good guys in the story are the friends of Harlan and all the bad guys are his enemies. But perhaps that helps him to empathize so successfully. Certainly the combination of author and subject leaves one in no danger of getting bored. One only wishes there had been some other evidence for the Afghan years to corroborate the account in the autobiography. Was Harlan really as “cool” as he seems? Probably. Did he not embellish his story just a little? Perhaps.

Macintyre admits that Kipling’s story was the inspiration for his quest for Harlan. But he does not make too many claims for his subject as the prototype of Dravot. Both were Freemasons, both trained armies, both followed Alexander’s footsteps and acquired a realm. They even shared similar ideas about how to make that acquisition. Dravot’s plans for Kafiristan were like Harlan’s in the Hazarajat, though the American would have put them more elegantly. In Kipling’s account, Dravot speaks as follows:

And that’s all we know, except that no one has gone there, and they fight, and in any place where they fight a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King. We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find—“D’you want to vanquish your foes?” and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we shall subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dynasty.*

There’s enough in common to suggest that Kipling knew about Harlan and made use of him, even though the name does not appear in the writer’s surviving correspondence. Like the American, he spent most of his Indian years in the Punjab, and he visited Peshawar and the Khyber. But there are differences too. Kipling was writing an allegory about imperial overreach, about overambition, about how empires can be overthrown when the customs of subject peoples are too greatly violated. He was writing too about a different kind of person, British “loafers,” men who had deserted from one or another of the services, who avoided officials, and who tried to swindle their way around India, sometimes by pretending to be journalists and blackmailing a raja. Harlan was not like them. He was a proud man who preferred to confront authority rather than avoid it. And he belonged to no empire of which his life could be an allegory.

Macintyre’s subtitle is almost as suggestive as his title. “The First American in Afghanistan” reminds us that a large number of other Americans have gone there since and that they and their leaders may not always have been as wise or as knowledgeable as Harlan. But the author resists making the point in his text. Many of Harlan’s observations, however, remain relevant. The British, he wrote in 1842, had managed to bring about what no Afghan ruler had ever achieved, uniting “a nation whose principle of existence lies in the disunion and separate interests of its constituent tribes into one unanimous community, goaded to madness by the systematic and consecutive tyranny of the invaders.”

The British nearly did it again between 1878 and 1880 but avoided a repeat disaster by eventually offering the throne to a protégé of the Russians (and a grandson of Dost Mohammed) and thus turning him into an ally—an unexpectedly subtle move worthy of Harlan. A century later the Russians united the Afghans against them even more catastrophically than the British had done. Perhaps it is still too early to predict whether the tradition is being continued. The current occupiers have not united the population against them, but they are not making many friends.

This Issue

May 13, 2004