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The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan by [Ben Macintyre]
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The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan Kindle Edition

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

While many know Sean Connery as "The Man Who Would Be King," few know 19th-century maverick Josiah Harlan, whose adventures probably inspired John Huston's version of Kipling's tale. But the research of British journalist Macintyre (The Englishman's Daughter) gives readers both Harlan's story and a thought-provoking perspective on the history of superpower intervention in Afghanistan. Born to a Pennsylvania Quaker family in 1799, the self-educated Harlan studied Greek and Roman history before becoming a Freemason and shipping out to Calcutta at age 21. Jilted by his fiancée, Harlan decided to seek his fortune on the Asian subcontinent. Calling himself a doctor, he briefly served as a military surgeon with the British army in the Burma War, before tales of Afghanistan fired his imagination. Disguised as a Muslim holy man, Harlan wheeled and dealed his way to Kabul, buying up mercenaries and bribing tribal leaders like a seasoned Afghan warlord. In 1838, Harlan was crowned king of the fierce Hazara people, although the British overthrow of the sitting Afghan ruler soon forced his departure. While mapping Harlan's adventures, Macintyre entertains readers with odd episodes (e.g., Harlan visiting an Afghan sauna fueled by burning night soil) and myriad ironies (e.g., Freemason Harlan trading secrets with an old Rosicrucian sorcerer in an Afghan cave). Harlan's story alone is fascinating, but its resonance with modern-day struggles—Harlan urging the British to try "fiscal diplomacy" (i.e., gold) instead of "invading and subjugating an unoffending people"—makes it compelling. Maps not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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 ...
--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Product details

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B00699S9NQ
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First edition (October 28, 2008)
  • Publication date ‏ : ‎ October 28, 2008
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • File size ‏ : ‎ 1697 KB
  • Text-to-Speech ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Enhanced typesetting ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • X-Ray ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Word Wise ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 377 pages
  • Lending ‏ : ‎ Not Enabled
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.3 out of 5 stars 332 ratings

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Ben Macintyre is a writer-at-large for The Times of London and the bestselling author of A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, and Rogue Heroes, among other books. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work.

(Photo Credit: Justine Stoddart)

Customer reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5
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