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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Man Who Would Be King

The First American in Afghanistan

Ben Macintyre

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


The Man Who Would Be King

Josiah Harlan's hunt for a crown began with a letter. A grubby, much-handled, unhappy letter, it followed the young American merchant seaman from Philadelphia to Canton, China, and finally to India. The year was 1822, and the letter was written by one of Harlan's brothers back in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He had entrusted it to another seaman bound for the East in the hope that the bad news might reach Josiah before he set sail for home. After many months, the dog-eared document caught up with Harlan in Calcutta, the teeming capital of British power in India. He read it, burned it, swore that he would never return to America, and set off alone on an eighteen-year odyssey into the heart of Central Asia.
That was the way Harlan remembered it. A Byronic act of impulse prompted by a broken promise and an injured heart; but in truth his journey had started many years earlier. It began in the avid imagination of a schoolboy, in the dockside stories of the seamen, in a newly born American empire of limitless promise and adventure. It began in the mind of a youth who was born a humble Quaker but imagined himself an ancient king.
Joshua and Sarah Harlan, Josiah Harlan's parents, were prosperous, pious people of quiet pacifism and deep faith. A merchant broker, Joshua had made sufficient money in the great port of Philadelphia to buy a small farm in Newlin Township, Chester County, where he had raised a large family. There had been Harlans in the county since 1687, when one Michael Harlan, from Durham, England, had emigrated, like so many Quakers, to the New World. Devout members of the Religious Society of Friends, Joshua and Sarah were plain of dress and speech, rejectedthe trappings of worship, never swore an oath or drank a drop of alcohol, and passionately opposed war. They were, therefore, somewhat unlikely candidates to produce a son who would become an Oriental potentate with his own army and a taste for exotic costumes.
Josiah Harlan arrived with little fanfare on June 12, 1799, the latest addition to a brood that already included Ann, James, Charles, Sarah, Mary, Joshua, William, and Richard. Edward was born four years later. We know little of Josiah's earliest years, save that they were noisy, joyful, and scholarly, for the Quaker educational system was excellent. Josiah read widely and voraciously: Shakespeare and Burke, Pliny and Plato, histories and romances, poetry and politics, treatises on natural history, physics and chemistry.
Harlan was just thirteen when his mother died, worn out by childbirth, leaving Joshua to care for ten children. Sarah bequeathed an estate of two thousand dollars to her three daughters, but left nothing to her seven sons, who were expected to make their own fortunes--which they did in ways that show Josiah was not the only Harlan anxious to explore the world beyond Chester County. Charles departed for South America as soon as he was old enough to leave home and was never seen again; James went to sea and died aboard an English man-of-war at the age of twenty-seven; and Richard wandered the East before becoming a celebrated anatomist. (Richard's hobby was studying human crania, and he finally amassed 275 of them, the largest collection in America.) While the sons of the family were off collecting crowns of gold and bone and dying in exotic locations, the daughters remained at home: all three of Josiah's sisters would die unmarried in Chester County.
Motherless, Josiah Harlan plunged deeper into a world of imagination and learning. At the age of fifteen, one contemporary recorded, he "amused himself with reading medical books and the history of Plutarch, as also the inspired Prophets." A natural linguist, he read Latin and Greek, and spoke French fluently. Josiah could put his mind and hand to anything, whether or not the results were worth it: his poetry was poor and his watercolors were worse. Botany became a passion, and his writings overflow with observations on plants and flowers, wild and cultivated. His prose style, particularly at moments of emotion or elation, tended - toward the flowery.
Above all, he steeped himself in Greek and Roman history. Many years later, an educated traveler who came across Harlan in the wilds ofthe Punjab found him immersed in classical literature, "in the which study I found him wonderfully well versed." Harlan's obsession with Alexander the Great dates from his earliest boyhood. He could recite long passages from Plutarch's The Age of Alexander, and he carried a copy of The History of Alexander by Quintus Curtius Rufus throughout his travels. Alexander's conquests in Persia, Afghanistan, and India were an inspiration to the young man growing up among the placid green fields of Pennsylvania, and he idealized the Macedonian conqueror: "In seven years Alexander performed feats that have consecrated his memory amongst the benefactors of mankind, and impressed the stamp of civilization on the face of the known world," he wrote. Harlan would follow Alexander from Pennsylvania to the uncharted corners of Afghanistan, and back again.
A young American in a young America, Josiah Harlan was impatient, ambitious, and utterly convinced of his own abilities. Some considered him arrogant; others thought him charming. No one ever found him boring. By the age of eighteen, he was over six feet tall, a striking, muscular, raw-boned and handsome young man with a long face, high forehead, and somewhat unsettling dark hazel eyes. He might have been the embodiment of a growing nation in young adulthood, as described by Henry Adams: "Stripped for the hardest work, every muscle firm and elastic, every ounce of brain ready for use, and not a trace of superfluous flesh on his nervous and supple body, the American stood in the world a new order of man."
Harlan grew up in the America of Thomas Jefferson, a place of infinite space and possibility. Explorers like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had started to open up the western two-thirds of North America, but vast areas of the globe remained undiscovered and unmapped: the interior of Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and, somewhere beyond the borders of India, the mysteries of Central Asia. The very breadth of the American continent inspired faith in the potential of a world to be discovered. Walt Whitman would rejoice in the scale of the American horizon:
My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps, I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents, I am afoot with my vision.
Intrepid Americans were moving west by the thousand: young Harlan, however, shed the ballast of his childhood, and headed east.
Josiah's wanderlust and his growing interest in medicine can be traced to the influence of his brother Richard. Three years older than Josiah, Richard had entered the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania, and then "made a voyage to Calcutta as a surgeon of an East India ship" in 1816. After a year at sea, Richard had returned to complete his medical degree, bringing back tales of his voyage and of the sights and sounds of India. In the spring of 1820, Joshua Harlan arranged a job for Josiah as "supercargo," the officer in charge of sales, on a merchant ship bound for Calcutta and Canton.
Before setting sail for the East, Harlan joined the secret fraternal order of Freemasons, which traces its origins to the stonemasons who built Solomon's Temple. Quite when or why the young American came to take the oath is unclear, but there was much in Freemasonry to attract a man of Harlan's temperament: the emphasis on history, on masculine self-sufficiency, and on the exploration of ethical and philosophical issues. America's Masonic lodges tended to draw freethinkers and rationalists, men of politics and action: one-third of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, had been Masons. Joined by high ideals and a shared realty to the lodge, Freemasons were expected to demonstrate the utmost tolerance while following a moral system clothed in ritual with allegorical symbols adopted from Christianity, the crusaders of the Middle Ages, and Islam. Like Rudyard Kipling, who would also join the organization as a young man, Harlan "appreciated Freemasonry for its sense of brotherhood and its egalitarian attitude to diverse faiths and classes."
Harlan seldom discussed his religious beliefs, but his Quaker upbringing molded him for life. Founded in England in the seventeenth century, the Quaker movement had taken deep root in America, with a credo that set its adherents apart from other Christians. Quakers--a name originally intended as an insult because they "tremble at the word of God"--worshipped without paid priests or dogma, believing that God, or the inner light, was in everyone. All of human life was sacred. "Therefore we cannot learn war anymore," declared the Quaker testimony. "The Spirit of Christ which leads us into all truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the Kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world." Harlan was brought up in a spirit of religious egalitarianism: men and women were granted equal authority in meetings, Quakers declined to dofftheir hats to those of higher status, and as early as 1774 the Society of Friends prohibited Quakers from owning slaves. Quaker mysticism was directed toward social and political improvement rather than dry theological speculation. In the course of his life Harlan would move away from some Quaker tenets, most notably the prohibition on war, but the religion remained central to his character and beliefs, revealing itself in a hardy independence of thought, belief in sexual equality, deep-rooted opposition to slavery, and a marked disinclination to bow and scrape to those who considered themselves his superiors.
Harlan's journey to the East would last thirteen months, taking him to China, India, and then, with a full cargo of Eastern merchandise, back to Philadelphia. Enchanted by his first adventure on the high seas, Harlan was preparing to set sail again, in the summer of 1821, when he accidentally fell in love.
He never mentioned the name of his first love. He refers to her obliquely in his writings, but was too much of a gentleman ever to divulge her identity. Yet he left a clue and carried the memory of her for the rest of his life. Among the handful of documents he left behind, sandwiched between a miniature watercolor and a recipe for Albany cakes, is a sixteen-line floral love poem in Harlan's handwriting, entitled "Acrostick in explanation of the lines addressed to Miss Eliza S. on presenting a bouquet."
Each quickening pulse in Coreopsis speaks Lo at first sight my love for thee was mov'd Iris love's messenger salutes those cheeks--Zephyrs! sweetly breathe where Alfers lov'd Althea says with passion I'm consumed Be wreathed the moss rose bud and locust leaves Emblem of love confess'd beyond the tomb--Thy Captive made, Peach blossoms fernéd leaves Heliotropes blue violet and Tulip red Secure devotion love its declaration--Whilst ecstasy from fragrant Jess'mine's bred--Ambrosia means love's acceptation In Verbena, Daisy red, Cowslip and Mignonette Must sense and beauty, grace, divinity set.

From Marigold--that's cruelty!--abstain And Rose, fair lady, for it means disdain!
This style of love poetry is now, mercifully, long out of fashion, but Harlan's horticultural verse was the product of some expert pruning: reading the first letter of each line reveals the name Elizabeth Swaim.
The Swaims were a large, well-to-do Philadelphia clan of Dutch origin. Early in 1822, Josiah Harlan and Elizabeth Swaim were engaged, although no formal announcement was made. Harlan again set sail for Canton, telling his fiancee that they would be married when he returned home the following spring.
Eliza Swaim seems to have had second thoughts from the moment the ship left port, but for months, as Harlan slowly sailed east, he remained unaware that she had jilted him. Not until Richard's letter caught up with him in Calcutta did he discover that Eliza had not only broken off their engagement, but was now married. A decade later, Harlan was still angrily denouncing the woman who had "played him false." When Joseph Wolff, an itinerant missionary, met him for the first time in 1832, Harlan unburdened himself to the priest: "He fell in love with a young lady who promised to marry him," Wolff noted in his journal. "He sailed again to Calcutta; but hearing that his betrothed lady had married someone else, he determined never again to return to America." Harlan would stick to his vow for nearly two decades. But he would keep the love poem to "Eliza S." until he died, alongside a second floral poem, written after he had received the devastating news, as bitter as the first verse was adoring.
How sweet that rose, in form how fair And how its fragrance scents the air With dew o'erspread as early as early morn I grasped it, but I grasped a thorn.

How strange thought I so fair a flower, Fit ornament for Lady's bower, Emblem of love in beauty's form, Should in its breast conceal a thorn.
Harlan embraced his own loneliness. Henceforth, the word solitude appears often in his writings. He had reached out and grasped a thorn; he would never clasp love in the same way again. The broken engagement was a moment of defining pain for Josiah, but Elizabeth Swaimhad also set him free. Cutting himself off from home and family, determined never to return, he now plunged off in search of a different sort of romance, seeking adventure, excitement, and fortune, caring nothing for his own safety or comfort.
Emotionally cast adrift in Calcutta, Harlan learned that the British were preparing to go to war against Burma and needed medical officers for the campaign. The jungles of Burma seemed an adequate distance from Pennsylvania and so, following his brother's example, Harlan signed up as a surgeon with the East India Company. That he did so in order to escape the mortifying memory of Eliza Swaim is apparent from a reference in his unpublished manuscript. "Gazing through a long window of twenty years," he wondered what would have happened "if, in place of entering the service for the Burma War in the year 1824, I had then relinquished the truant disposition of erratic motives and taken a congenial position in the midst of my native community and quietly fallen into the systematic routine of ordinary life--if I had sailed for Philadelphia instead of Rangoon or had I listened to the dictates of prudence, which accorded with the calculations of modest and unambitious views, and not a personal incident that occurred during my absence from home." This "personal incident" would lead Harlan into a life worthy of fiction, which, in time, it would become. From now on, he began to fashion his self-plotted saga, acutely aware of his role as the protagonist, narrator, and author of his own story. "It is from amongst such incidents and in such a life that novelists have sought for subject matter," he wrote. "In those regions, which are to me the land of realities, have the lovers of romance delighted to wander and repose and dream of fictions less strange than realizations of the undaunted and energetic enterprise of reckless youth."
Calcutta, where Harlan now abandoned ship, was the seat of British rule in India, the capital city of the Honourable East India Company. The "Grandest Society of Merchants in the Universe," "the Company," as it was universally known, was an extraordinary outgrowth of British history, an alliance of government and private commerce on an imperial scale, and the precursor of the British Raj. Chartered under Elizabeth I, by the early nineteenth century the Company could wage war, mint currency, raise armies, build roads, make or break princes, and exercise virtual sovereignty over India. Twenty years before Harlan's arrival, theCompany's governor general had become a government appointment, serving the shareholders while simultaneously acting in Britain's national interests. The Company was thus part commercial and part political, ruling an immense area through alliances with semi-independent local monarchs and controlling half the world's trade. This was "the strangest of all governments, designed for the strangest of all empires," in Lord Macaulay's words. Only in the aftermath of the Indian mutiny in 1858 would the British crown take formal control of the subcontinent.
Service with the East India Company promised adventure and advancement, and potential wealth. More immediately, for Harlan, it offered distance from Eliza Swaim, and a paid job as a military surgeon. That he had never actually studied medicine was not, at least in his own mind, an impediment. Years later, he would claim that he "had in his early life studied surgery," but what medical knowledge he possessed appears to have been entirely self-taught. A medical textbook was a part of every educated traveler's baggage, and before his first voyage to Canton, Harlan had "taken a few of his brother's medical books with him and then decided to use their contents in treating persons other than himself?" The rough life aboard a merchant vessel had presented opportunities to observe and treat a variety of ailments and injuries. In July 1824, with no qualifications whatever, relying on an alloy of brass neck and steely self-confidence, Harlan "presented himself for examination at the medical board, and was appointed surgeon at the Calcutta general hospital." Calcutta was one of the most unhealthy places on earth, and with war looming in Burma, surgeons, however novice, were in hot demand.
For decades the expansionist Burmese had been steadily advancing along the eastern frontier of the Company's dominion, conquering first Assam and then Shahpuri Island near Chittagong, a Company possession. Fearing an attack on Bengal itself, the British now responded in force with a seaborne army of some eleven thousand men. On May 11, 1824, using a steamship in war for the first time, British forces invaded and captured Rangoon, but with Burmese resistance hardening, Calcutta ordered up fresh troops. Harlan had been on the payroll for just a few months when, to his intense satisfaction, he was ordered to the battlefield; if he had any qualms about violating the Quaker rules on pacifism, they were suppressed. "He was transferred to the Artillery ofDum-Dum, and proceeded with that detachment to Rangoon" by boat. It was a most uncomfortable voyage, lasting more than a fortnight. Harlan was deeply impressed by the resilience of the native troops. "The Hindu valet de chambre who accompanied me consumed nothing but parched grain, a leguminous seed resembling the pea, during the fifteen days he was on board the vessel." Arriving in Rangoon in January 1825, Harlan was appointed "officiating assistant surgeon and attached to Colonel George Pollock's Bengal Artillery."
The British defeated a sixty thousand strong force outside Rangoon, forcing the enemy into the jungle, but the army was suffering numerous casualties, mostly through disease, and the Burmese showed no sign of surrendering. In February, a young English adventurer named James Brooke was ambushed by guerrillas at Rangpur and severely wounded by a sword thrust through both his lungs. Brooke would recover and go on to become Rajah Brooke, founder of the dynasty of white rajahs that ruled Sarawak in Borneo from 1842 until 1946, the best-known example of self-made imperial royalty. It is tempting to imagine that the future prince of Ghor tended the wounds of the future rajah of Sarawak, but sadly there is no evidence of a meeting between Harlan and Brooke, two men who would be kings.
That spring, the artillery pushed north and Harlan was present at the capture of Prome, the capital of lower Burma, after some ferocious hand-to-hand fighting. The Treaty of Yandaboo, in February 1826, brought the First Anglo-Burmese war to a close. After battling through two rainy seasons, the Company had successfully defended and extended its frontier, but at the cost of fifteen thousand troops killed, and thousands more injured or debilitated by tropical disease. One of the casualties was Harlan himself, who was put on the invalid list and shipped back to Calcutta, suffering from an unspecified illness.
Once he had recuperated, Harlan was posted to the British garrison at Karnal, north of Delhi, and it was there that he discovered a soul mate who would become his "most faithful and disinterested friend." Looking back, Harlan wrote that this companion "rendered invaluable services with the spontaneous freedom of unsophisticated friendship, enhancing his favours by unconsciousness of their importance. He accompanied me with unabated zeal throughout the dangers and trials of those eventful years." His name was Dash, a mixture of red setter andScottish terrier, a dog whose fierce and independent temperament matched Harlan's exactly. "Dash never maintained friendly relations with his own kind. Neither could he be brought to tolerate as a companion any dog that was not perfectly submissive and yielding to the dogged obstinacy and supremacy of an imperious and ambitious temper," wrote Harlan. The description fit both man and dog. "Dash had always been carefully indulged in every caprice and accustomed to the services of a valet. He was never beaten and his spirit, naturally ardent and generous, maintained the determined bearing which characterises a noble nature untrammelled by the servility arising from harsh discipline. Dash could comprehend the will of his master when conveyed by a word or a glance."
Harlan passed the time in Karnal training his puppy, cataloguing the local flora, treating the soldiers suffering from dysentery, and reading whatever he could lay his hands on. In 1815, literary London had been briefly enthralled by the publication of An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and its dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India, comprising a View of the Afghaun Nation and history of the Dooraunee Monarchy, a colorful two-volume description of the exotic, unknown land inhabited by the Afghan tribes. The author was the splendidly named Mountstuart Elphinstone, an East India Company official who in 1808 had led the first ever diplomatic mission to Afghanistan, accompanied by an entire regiment of cavalry, two hundred infantry, six hundred camels, and a dozen elephants. The Englishman described a wondrous journey among ferocious tribesmen and wild animals, through a landscape of savage beauty. Elphinstone had been received at Peshawar with great pomp and ceremony by Shah Shujah al-Moolk, the Afghan monarch then in the sixth precarious year of his reign. Ushered into the royal presence, the Englishman had found the Afghan king seated on a huge golden throne. "We thought at first he had on an armour of jewels, but, on close inspection, we found this to be a mistake, and his real dress to consist of a green tunic, with large flowers in gold, and precious stones, over which were a breast-plate of diamonds, shaped like two flattened fleur-de-lis, an ornament of the same kind on each thigh, large emerald bracelets and many other jewels in different places." On Shujah's arm shone an immense diamond, the fabled Koh-i-Noor, or Mountain of Light.
Elphinstone's orders were to secure Afghan support against a potential Franco-Persian alliance, and his visit became an elaborate exchange of diplomatic pleasantries. The English officers were presented with dresses of honor, the Oriental mode of conferring esteem. In return Elphinstone showered the Afghan court with gifts, to the ire of the Company's bean-counters who rebuked Elphinstone for "a principle of diffusion unnecessarily profuse." In spite of the rather unseemly way Shujah gloated over his haul (he was particularly taken with Elphinstone's own silk stockings), the Englishman had described the king and his sumptuous court in the most admiring terms: "How much he had of the manners of a gentleman, [and] how well he preserved his dignity." The British mission never penetrated past the Khyber Pass and into the Afghan heartland for, as Shujah explained, his realm was deeply unsettled, with the looming possibility of full-scale rebellion. Indeed, within a few months of Elphinstone's departure, Shujah would be deposed.
Although Elphinstone had never actually seen Kabul, his Account was heady stuff. Harlan absorbed every thrilling word of it: the jewels, the wild Afghan tribesmen, the sumptuous Oriental display and the "princely address" of the handsome king wearing his crown, "about nine inches high, not ornamented with jewels as European crowns are, but to appearance entirely formed of those precious materials." The book's vivid depiction of the Afghan character might have described Harlan himself: "Their vices are revenge, envy, avarice and obstinacy; on the other hand they are fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependents, hospitable, brave, hardy, laborious and prudent."
Reading by candlelight in Karnal cantonment, entranced by what he called this "well arranged and minutely true account of Avghanistaun," Harlan dreamed of new adventures. He was growing impatient with service in the East India Company, and increasingly unwilling to follow the orders of pimply young Englishmen. One of the many contradictions in Harlan's personality was his insistence on strict military discipline among his subordinates, while being congenitally incapable of taking orders from those ranking above him. The freeborn American was also decidedly free with his opinions, and the young surgeon's outspokenness, often verging on insubordination, did not endear him to his superiors: "Harlan does not appear to have obtained a very goodname during his connection with the Company's army, which he soon quitted," wrote a contemporary. One later account claimed that he was on leave when the order was issued for the dismissal of all temporary surgeons, but Harlan insisted that the decision to leave the service was his alone. Elphinstone painted a thrilling picture of princely Afghan warlords battling for supremacy in a medieval world where a warrior-could win a kingdom by force of arms. "A sharp sword and a bold heart supplant the laws of hereditary descent," wrote Harlan. "Audacious ambition gains by the sabre's sweep and soul-propelling spur, a kingdom and [a] name amongst the crowned sub deities of the diademed earth." The Company, by contrast, kept subordinate princes on the tightest rein and in British-controlled India the native monarchs were little more than impotent figureheads, he reflected, feeble and supine. "Under English domination we have his stiff encumbered gait, in place of the reckless impetuosity of the predatory hero. The cane of the martinet displaces the warrior's spear."
Spurred by "the undaunted and energetic enterprise of reckless youth," Harlan was already imagining how his own bold heart and sharp sword might be used to supplant the laws of hereditary descent, and in the summer of 1826 he ended his allegiance to the British Empire. Harlan had witnessed British imperialism in action, but his own imperial impulse was of a peculiarly American sort. Thomas Jefferson himself had spoken of "an empire for liberty" and imagined the ideals of the American Revolution stretching from ocean to ocean, and beyond; the America of Harlan's youth had expanded at an astonishing rate. He had been just four years old when Jefferson doubled the nation's size by purchasing from France the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi, and throughout his childhood the white population had been steadily pushing wesrivard, while scientific-military expeditions such as those of Lewis and Clark set out to determine the contours of this vast new land. The ending of the War of 1812 had cleared the way for further settlement of the Mississippi Valley, while under the Convention of 1818 Britain and the United States agreed to occupy jointly the vast territory of Oregon. A treaty with Spain the following year established America's southern border. The Indians of those territories, not to mention any French and Spanish subjects who also lived there, found themselves part of the new republican American empire. Harlan's worldview reflectedthis urgent, embracing outward impetus, what one historian has called "the heady optimism of that season of U.S. empire at surge tide." New lands and peoples were there to be discovered, scientifically explored, introduced to the benefits of civilization by force, exploited as a matter of course, and brought into the great American experiment. That the inhabitants did not wish to be absorbed into a greater America and preferred to govern themselves, was immaterial.
Harlan deeply admired Jefferson and retained a lifelong faith in republican values, but at the same time he considered himself a "high Tory in principles," and an admirer of "kingly dignity." America had won its independence from Great Britain just sixteen years before Harlan's birth. He never expressed nostalgia for British rule and came to loathe the more oppressive aspects of British imperialism, yet he firmly believed that sovereign power should be invested in a single, benign ruler, whether power came through democracy (as with Washington and Jefferson) or through conquest. In this sense, Harlan's imperialism resembled the original imperium, the authority exercised by the rulers of Rome over the city-state and its dominions. In Harlan's mind, no figure in history represented this combination of civilized expansionism with kingly dignity more spectacularly than Alexander the Great. "His power was extended by the sword and maintained by the arts of civilization. A blessing to succeeding generations by the introduction of the refinements of life, the arts and sciences, in the midst of communities exhausted by luxury or still rude in the practices of barbarism ...zVast designs for the benefit of mankind were conceived in the divine mind of their immortal founder, the universal philanthropist no less than universal conqueror." Conquest, benevolence, philanthropy, and immortality: Harlan saw Alexander's empire, like the expanding American imperium, as a moral force bringing enlightenment to the savages, and he would come to regard his own foray into the wilderness in the same way: not simply as a bid for power, but the gift of a new world order to a benighted corner of the earth. It was a language of cultural emancipation that would have loud echoes nearly two centuries later.
Harlan's ideas of empire were still in their infancy when he left the roasting Indian plains and made his way to Simla, the hill station in the north where British officialdom was on retreat from the summer heat. Technically, as a civilian, Harlan was now persona non grata, since "neitherBritish subjects nor foreigners were allowed to domicile in the interior of India without a license," but following an interview with the Governor General Lord Amherst himself, the permit was granted. Harlan chose not to linger in the Himalayan foothills. Instead, armed with his copy of Elphinstone, he headed toward Ludhiana, the Company's last garrison town in northwest India.
Ludhiana marked the westernmost edge of British control, a dusty border post where civilization, as the British saw it, ended, and the wilderness began. Beyond was the mysterious Punjab, and even farther west, across the mighty Indus, lay mythical Afghanistan: a "terra incognita," in Harlan's words. In Simla, Harlan had learned that Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the mighty independent ruler of the Punjab, had already employed a handful of European officers to train his army in modern military techniques, and might be looking for more such recruits. The Sikh king was also famously obsessed with his health. After barely a year as an army medical officer, Harlan considered himself amply qualified to work for the maharaja as either doctor or soldier, or both.
On a late summer's evening in 1826, accompanied by Dash and a handful of servants, Harlan rode into Ludhiana, caked in dust but still resplendent in his full service uniform, complete with cocked hat. Presiding over this outpost of empire was one Captain Claude Martine Wade, the East India Company's political agent and the leader of its tiny colony of Europeans. Wade's tasks were to police the border, maintain relations with the local Indian princes, and report back to Calcutta with whatever intelligence he could glean on the chaotic political situation beyond the frontier. Wade was the shrewdest of Company men, as dry and penetrating as the wind that blew off the western desert, and he observed the arrival of this unlikely young American with a mixture of interest and deep suspicion. Harlan made his way directly to Wade's residence and handed the British agent a document, signed by the governor general himself, giving him permission to cross the Sutlej, the river separating the company's domain from that of Ranjit Singh.
Cordial but reserved, Wade invited Harlan to lodge at the residence while he made preparations for his journey. The offer was readily accepted, and having dispatched a letter to Ranjit Singh by native courier requesting permission to enter the Punjab, Harlan settled down to await a reply in comfort. "I enjoyed the amenities of Captain W.'s hospitality,"he wrote, noting that the Englishman "with the characteristic liberality of his country, extended the freedom of his mansion to all." Over dinner, Wade explained that he maintained "respectful and obedient subservience from the numerous princely chieftains subject to his surveillance" by playing one off against another. The English agent handled his delegated authority with ruthless skill, caring little what the local rulers did to their subjects or to each other, so long as British prestige was maintained. As Kipling wrote in "The Man Who Would Be King": "Nobody cares a straw for the internal administration of Native States ...žThey are the dark places of the earth, full of unimaginable cruelty."
Harlan was impressed by Wade's cynical attitude to power, declaring him an "expert diplomatist" and "a master of finesse who wielded an expedient and peculiar policy with success." Wade, in turn, was intrigued by his energetic and enigmatic guest, who seemed to have money and who spoke in the most educated fashion about the local flora and ancient history. Many strange types blew through Ludhiana, including the occasional European adventurer, but a mercenary-botanist-classicist was a new species altogether.
Puzzled, Wade reported to Calcutta: "Dr. Harlan's principal object in wishing to visit the Punjab was in the first place to enter Ranjit Singh's service and ultimately to pursue some investigation regarding the natural history of that country." He warned Harlan that the Company could not approve of the first part of his plan, since "the resort of foreigners to native courts is viewed with marked disapprobation or admitted only under a rigid surveillance." Yet he did not try to dissuade him from heading west. In the unlikely event he survived, a man like Harlan might prove very useful in Lahore, Ranjit's capital.
Harlan's future was clear, at least in his own mind: he would join the maharaja's entourage and rise to fame and fortune, while compiling a full inventory of the plants and flowers of the exotic Punjab. Like Lewis and Clark, with American bravado and learning, he would open up a new world. The only hitch was that Ranjit Singh would not let him in. The maharaja had signed a treaty with the British back in 1809, but as the greatest independent ruler left in India, he was pathologically (and understandably) suspicious of feringhees, as white foreigners were called. The British were happy to let the Sikh potentate get on with buildinghis own empire beyond the Sutlej. "Very little communication had heretofore existed betwixt the two governments," wrote Harlan. "The interior of the Punjab was only seen through a mysterious veil, and a dark gloom hung over and shrouded the court of Lahore." Which was exactly the way Ranjit Singh wanted it.
As he cooled his heels waiting for a passport that never arrived, Harlan began to form an altogether more extravagant plan that would take him far beyond the Punjab in the service of a different king, who also happened to be his neighbor in Ludhiana.
Copyright © 2004 by Macintyre Books Inc.