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.
In 1888, when Kipling wrote The Man Who Would Be King while working for the Pioneer, a newspaper in northern India, the astute young reporter must certainly have heard tales of the firangi who traveled to a godforsaken land and charmed his way to a regal entitlement. In fact, Harlan’s life was a far cry from that of Kipling’s despotic Dravot, with his fake Masonic rituals, hollering himself hoarse in his attempt to turn his dim-witted subjects “all English”–not like the “common, black Mohammedans.” The real-life Harlan displayed scant interest in taking up the white man’s burden. A man given to extravagant prose, Harlan was an ardent admirer of Alexander the Great and fancied himself a military heir to the Macedonian conqueror. But his imperial hubris was individualistic and ambitious. While his diaries indulged in florid paeans to Alexander’s conquests, in reality he remained an employee of local rulers, adopting their customs and adhering to elaborate Eastern diplomatic protocols.
Early in his travels, he probably supplied information to the British frontier garrison, but he was never employed or acknowledged as a British spy. And toward the end of his journey, Harlan came to detest the grandstanding British imperial mission: In an extraordinary twist in an extraordinary life, the man who began his Asian adventures in the British Army had all but defected to the enemy camp.
The intrigue-rife Great Game saw many ambitious players changing sides and swapping puppet-princes in the pur-suit of power. In the end, “Bokhara Burnes,” caught in the politicking among London, Calcutta and the outposts of the Empire, found himself switching loyalties in the summer of 1839. Just two years after enjoying Dost Mohammed’s hospitality in Kabul, Burnes returned to the garden-speckled, mountain-encased Afghan city–only this time, it was with a 15,000-strong British-Indian army intent on toppling his former host and propping up a puppet prince in his place. Despite misgivings about turning on his old Afghan friend, Burnes agreed to lead an advancing expeditionary force into the Afghan heartland. His qualms were quashed by a promotion designed to secure the ambitious young Briton’s acquiescence: Just months before “The Army of the Indus” lumbered across the Sindh plains, Burnes was upped to the rank of lieutenant colonel and knighted, at the precocious age of 33.
Harlan, by contrast, proved to be a loyal friend to the end, with a mere Persian promissory document from a Hazara prince to his name. As the Army of the Indus closed in on Kabul, the American adventurer joined the fast-dwindling ranks of faithful advisers in Dost Mohammed’s tent. His account of the Dost’s last dignified moments in Kabul, even as looters tried to grab the pillows and carpets beneath the once mighty ruler’s feet, is a wrenching account of the East being humiliated and crushed by the conquering West.
The British did capture Kabul and place the craven Shah Shujah on the throne. They also proceeded to fashion a mini-Calcutta out of Kabul, bringing up their wives (the detestable memsahibs of British India), throwing tea and dinner parties where the champagne and sherry flowed, playing polo and cricket and pretending Afghanistan was an outpost of India. In a dispatch that came to epitomize the white man’s colonial delusions, the British administrator in Afghanistan famously reported that all was quiet “from Dan to Beersheba.”
Within months, the British residency in Kabul was in flames and an enraged crowd had surrounded Burnes’s residence and savagely ripped the young Scotsman to shreds. The once proud Army of the Indus, which had ridden into Kabul with camels bearing cargo of crockery and cutlery, was hissed and hacked out of Afghanistan. And in one of the more melodramatic moments of British colonial history, only a lone horseman, a military surgeon with his skull severely gashed, managed to straggle to the safety of the Jalalabad garrison.
Routed out of Afghanistan and unhappily back in America by then, Harlan launched a scathing attack on the British enterprise in his beloved Afghanistan. The British had inflicted “famines, discontent, disaffection” and “financial distress” in their colonies, he thundered in his book, A Memoir of India and Avghanistaun. Through “frivolity, stupidity and turpitude,” he wrote, Burnes had brought about “the massacre of a British army and the destruction of many a noble soldier.” The response to his Memoir will sound familiar to any American accused of being “unpatriotic” for opposing the latest Iraq war. For British readers horrified and shocked by their army’s sacking in the East–the English newspaper reports had described happy locals welcoming the British “civilizing mission”–Harlan’s vituperation proved too much. An “extraordinary concoction of bombastic romance, deliberate perversions, false statements and virulent abuse,” sneered one British critic. His arguments were summarily rejected, and some writers took vicious personal jabs, such as the influential English military historian Sir John William Kaye, who called Harlan “clever and unscrupulous.”
Almost overnight, Harlan turned into a “publishing pariah” as Macintyre aptly puts it. Not only would publishers never touch his subsequent writings but the British establishment also succeeded in closing ranks and officially discounting or dismissing the American’s achievements in their part of the world. In the 1920s British historian Charles Grey savaged the American adventurer as an unhinged embellisher at best, a liar at worst. As happens all too depressingly often, subsequent historians took their cue from the early-twentieth-century historians–if they even bothered with the first American in Afghanistan.
As an Indian child devouring Great Game accounts by British historians, I could never quite suppress my glee over the sacking of the British garrison and the shredding of a colonial hero in Kabul. Gandhian nonviolent struggle was all very well, but a little bloodshed for such colossal imperial hubris couldn’t hurt that much, could it?
Well, not if you’ve been sampling the Great Game fare out there. The most vivid writers tend to stem from the center-right, from the unapologetically imperialist Kipling to the slavishly Raj-nostalgic Peter Hopkirk. The more fair-minded breed of chroniclers, who have benefited from newly released Russian documents after the Soviet collapse, do provide a less Anglophile version of history. Alas, their work also tends to be heavy going–such as the exemplarily researched Tournament of Shadows by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac.
In a sort of transatlantic making of amends for the shoddy literary treatment his countrymen meted out to the American adventurer, Macintyre has uncovered a trove of documents and Harlan’s own unpublished journals to produce an honest retelling of the American Quaker’s Afghan adventures. If there’s one little problem with The Man Who Would Be King, it’s Macintyre’s penchant for drawing facile parallels between the first American in Afghanistan and the subsequent American interventions during the cold war and after September 11. A seasoned former foreign correspondent and columnist for the London Times, Macintyre says he became interested in Harlan’s story in the lead-up to the October 2001 attack, when US bunker-buster bombs were blasting the Tora Bora caves targeting Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. But apart from their nationality, there’s very little in common between Josiah Harlan, multilinguist, naturalist, observer, scholar and writer, and US Special Forces teams in their wraparound sunglasses and bulletproof vests, at the mercy of their translators and at risk of stomping into local vendettas. Whereas Harlan loved the land and its people and mastered their languages and customs, the new breed of Americans in Afghanistan, for the most part, can’t wait to get home. Where US troops in Afghanistan fashion mini-Americas in their bases, complete with videos, Super Bowl and Oscar Night broadcasts, and the annual Thanksgiving turkey, Harlan, the consummate nineteenth-century man of letters, extensively recorded the minutiae of native life, from studies of dromedaries to military tactics to tribal folkways.
Harlan may have unfurled the American Stars and Stripes on the Hazara heights, and he may have secured a promissory note to rule a kingdom, but he never did become king. He was a man cut off from his newly formed homeland, which in turn was too busy defining itself and pushing West to care about what was happening in the East. As a born-again anticolonialist, Harlan was in fact precursor to a rather different breed of American–now seemingly silenced–who supported anticolonial movements in the former colonies.
Kipling may have exhorted the United States to “take up the white man’s burden” in the Philippines in 1899, but even the imperial bard was honest about its reception. For it is in death that the firangis who have hustled the East face the consequences of their deeds. Dravot was beheaded in Kipling’s Kafiristan, his mottled, matted head smuggled out of hostile terrain in a loyal companion’s hairskin bag. Burnes, Harlan’s former neighbor in Kabul, met his gruesome end at the hands of a rampaging mob. For Harlan, the man who would have been king but in reality only served kings, it was a secure–if obscure–old age and death in America. One can only hope that the current crop of empire-shapers in the East will have quite the same luck.