At the height of the Great Game, when adventure-crazed young men from Britain and Russia stealthily documented the wild miles and tribes of Central Asia, an American and an Englishman set up temporary residence in the Afghan city of Kabul in the fall of 1837. Educated, enterprising, erudite, the two firangis–Hindi for white men–were both guests of Amir Dost Mohammed Khan, the ruler of large swaths of southern Afghanistan. That’s about where the similarities ended. The younger of the two was an official British envoy, a rapidly rising Scotsman whose celebrated, three-part epic about his travels to the Caspian region had turned him into a thinking lady’s crumpet and the toast of London society. The other was a Pennsylvania-born son of a Quaker merchant, a faux surgeon, spurned lover, itinerant soldier and adventurer exploring the khanates and kingdoms beyond the northwestern outskirts of the British Indian empire.
The Scotsman, Sir Alexander Burnes–or “Bokhara Burnes” as he came to be called–has been the dashing tragic hero of a slew of Great Game chroniclers. For the many writers and historians drawn to the Anglo-Russian rivalry to hustle the “buffer” regions between their expanding empires, Burnes is the quintessential Great Game player, a daring young achiever initially rewarded by the colonial system only to be fatally abandoned by the suits in Calcutta and Westminster. In contrast, Josiah Harlan, the resident American in Kabul, is a shadowy figure, unlisted in most indexes, except for the more exhaustive–and exhausting–accounts, where he merits the briefest of mentions in the also-ran sections.
But now, nearly two centuries after his audacious adventures, British journalist Ben Macintyre rescues Harlan from the maw of obscurity in The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan. A thrilling yarn featuring a cast of exotic yet familiar characters– one-eyed maharajahs, razor-sharp British spymasters, horse doctors on mysterious equestrian missions, dastardly princes dangling their bitter plumes in exile, mercenaries of the Napoleonic wars peddling their expertise to local rajahs, wizened munshis, or men of learning, dabbling in alchemy and Freemasonry–the book is a Kiplingesque fantasy guaranteed to get even the dourest reader’s blood racing. Indeed, as the title suggests, there’s more than just a whiff of Rudyard Kipling in this “Asiatic yarn.” The bard of the Great Game is widely believed to have fashioned the adventures of Daniel Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King (played by Sean Connery in the 1975 John Huston adaptation) on Harlan’s almost impossibly exciting life.
Jilted by his fiancée in America, Harlan began his extraordinary travels in Asia as a military surgeon in the British Army in the first Burma War (1824-26) before making his way to the forbidding passes separating the Punjab from the Pashtun tribal heartland. In the course of his hazardous journeys–often in “holy man” drag–Harlan served as a physician to the mighty Maharajah Ranjit Singh of Punjab and governed a province in the wily Sikh king’s extensive kingdom. After an acrimonious falling out with the one-eyed maharajah, Harlan returned to his beloved Kabul, where he took on the role of military adviser to Amir Dost Mohammed. It was under Dost Mohammed’s patronage that the American adventurer commandeered a military mission over the perilous Hindu Kush mountains into the Bamian valley. And in the desolate Bamian stretches, where Shiite Hazara tribes lived in perpetual fear of marauding Uzbek warlords, Harlan struck up an extraordinary deal with a local prince. As payment for a proposal to train a tribal army in modern warfare, Harlan secured a promissory document entitling him to rule–as sovereign–the mountainous kingdom of Ghoree, or Ghor.