Josiah Harlan

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Josiah Harlan
Josiah Harlan in his Afghan robes.
Born 12 June 1799
Newlin Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania, United States
Died October 1871 (aged 72)
San Francisco, United States
Occupation American adventurer, best known for traveling to Afghanistan and Punjab with the intention of making himself a king.

Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor (12 June 1799 − October 1871) was an American adventurer, best known for travelling to Afghanistan and Punjab with the intention of making himself a king. While there, he became involved in local politics and factional military actions, eventually winning the title Prince of Ghor in perpetuity for himself and his descendants in exchange for military aid. Rudyard Kipling's short story The Man Who Would Be King is believed to be partly based on Harlan.

Harlan's childhood[edit]

Josiah Harlan was born in Newlin Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania. His parents, Joshua Harlan and Sarah Hinchman,[1] were Quakers, and Josiah and his nine siblings, including Richard Harlan, were raised in a strict and pious home. His father was a merchant broker in Philadelphia and several of his sons would later enter the merchant business.

Losing his mother at the age of thirteen, Josiah delved into reading. A contemporary records that Harlan, at the age of fifteen, amused himself with reading medical books and the biographies of Plutarch, as well as the inspired Prophets. He read Latin and Greek, while speaking fluent French. He also developed a passion for botany that would last his entire life. He also studied Greek and Roman Ancient history, particularly taken by stories of Alexander the Great.

Early travels[edit]

In 1820, Harlan embarked on his first travels. His father secured him a job as supercargo on a merchant ship bound for the East, sailing to Calcutta, India, then Guangzhou, China and back. Returning from this first trip and preparing for the next, he fell in love. It was arranged that they were engaged and to be married when he returned. However, in Calcutta he received notice that his fiancée had broken the engagement and already married another.

Broken by this news, Harlan vowed never to return to America, instead seeking adventure in the East. In July 1824, without any formal education, he enlisted as a surgeon with the British East India Company. The Company was about to enter a war in Burma, and was in need for qualified surgeons. Relying on his self-studies and some practice while at sea, Harlan presented himself to the medical board for examination and was appointed as surgeon to the Calcutta general hospital. From January 1825 he served with the army in Burma, until he was injured or became ill. Meanwhile, the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 ended hostilities. Once recuperated, Harlan was posted to Karnal, north of Delhi, where he soon grew weary with taking orders from the Company. In the summer of 1826, he left their service. As a civilian, he was granted a permit to stay in India by the Governor General Lord Amherst.

Entering Afghanistan[edit]

After a stay in Simla, Harlan came to Ludhiana, a border outpost of British India on the Sutlej river which formed the border between the Punjab and British India at the time. He had decided to enter the service of Ranjit Singh, the Maharaja of Punjab. Here, while awaiting an answer on his request to enter Punjab, he met the exiled Afghan ruler Shuja Shah Durrani of the Durrani Empire and eventually entered his service. With financial support from Shuja Shah Durrani, Harlan travelled along the Indus and into Afghanistan, first to Peshawar then to Kabul. He met in Kabul the man who he had come to depose, Dost Mohammad Khan.

In Peshawar, Harlan had met a Nawab Jabbar Khan, who was a brother of Dost Mohammad Khan. Jabbar Khan was important as a possible rival of Dost Mohammad, and thus a possible ally to Shuja Shah. While staying with Jabbar Khan, Harlan evaluated the situation and realised that Dost Mohammad's position was too strong, and that influence from outside Afghanistan was needed. He decided to seek his luck in Punjab.

In the service of a Maharaja Ranjit Singh[edit]

Harlan came to Lahore, the capital of Punjab, in 1829. He sought out the French general Jean-François Allard, who introduced him to the Maharaja. Harlan was offered a military position but declined, looking for something more lucrative. This, he eventually found: After lingering at the court for some time he was offered the position of Governor of Gujrat District, a position he accepted. Before giving him this position, however, the Maharaja decided to test Harlan.

In December 1829, he was instated as Governor of Nurpur and Jasrota, described by Harlan himself as two districts then newly subjugated by the King in Lahore, located on the skirt of the Himalah mountains. These districts had been seized by their rajah in 1816 and were fairly wealthy at the time Harlan arrived. Little, if anything, is known of Harlan's tenure here, but he must have fared well. In May 1832 he was transferred to Gujrat. In Gujrat, Harlan was visited soon after his instatement by Henry Lawrence who later described him as a man of considerable ability, great courage and enterprise, and judging by appearance, well cut out for partisan work.

While appointing a European governor was rare, Harlan was certainly not the only one. His colleague Paolo Avitabile was made governor of Wazirabad, and Jean-Baptiste Ventura was made governor of Dera Ghazi Khan in 1831. Harlan was also in turn followed in his position in Gujrat by an Englishman named Holmes.

Prince of Ghor Province[edit]

In 1838, Harlan set off on a punitive expedition against the Uzbek slave trader and warlord Murad Beg. He had multiple reasons for doing this: he wanted to help Dost Mohammad assert his authority outside of Kabul; he had a deep-seated opposition to slavery and he wanted to demonstrate that a modern army could successfully cross the Hindu Kush. Taking a force of approximately 1,400 cavalry, 1,100 infantry, 1,500 support personnel and camp followers, 2,000 horses, 400 camels and one elephant, Harlan thought of himself as a modern-day Alexander the Great. He was accompanied by a younger son and a secretary of Dost Mohammad. Dost Mohammad sought to collect tribute from the Hazara who were willing if the Afghans also ended Murad Beg's raids.

After an arduous journey (which included an American flag-raising ceremony at the top of the Indian Caucasus), Harlan reinforced his army with local Hazaras, most of whom lived in fear of the slave traders. His first major military engagement was a short siege at the Citadel of Saighan, controlled by a Tajik slave-trader. Harlan's artillery made short work of the fortress. As a result of this performance, local powers clamored to become Harlan's friends.

One of the most powerful and ambitious local rulers was Mohammad Reffee Beg Hazara, a prince of Ghor, an area in the central and western part of what is now the country of Afghanistan. He and his retinue feasted for ten days with Harlan's force, during which time they observed the remarkable discipline and organization of the modern army. They invited the American back to Reffee's mountain stronghold. Harlan was amazed by the working feudal system. He admired the Hazaras both because of the absence of slavery in their culture and by the gender equality he observed(unusual in that region at the time). At the end of Harlan's visit, he and Reffee came to an agreement. Harlan and his heirs would be the Prince of Ghor in perpetuity, with Reffee as his vizier. In return, Harlan would raise and train an army with the ultimate goal of solidifying and expanding Ghor's autonomy. However, when Harlan returned to Kabul the British forces accompanying William Hay Macnaghten arrived to occupy the city in an early stage of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Harlan, who was not an admirer of the British, quickly became a persona non grata and after some further travel returned to the US.

Homeward bound[edit]

After leaving Afghanistan, Harlan spent some time in Imperial Russia. A woman he knew in England sent letters to Russian nobility in which she claimed that Harlan was an experienced administrator who could help the Russian peasantry better itself. Though he was well liked by Russia's society women, Harlan made no important government contacts and soon decided to go back to America.

Once he returned to America, Harlan was feted as a national hero. He skillfully played the press, telling them not to dwell on his royal title, as he "looks upon kingdoms and principalities as of frivolous import, when set in opposition to the honourable and estimable title of American citizen".[2] His glory quickly faded after the publication of A Memoir of India and Afghanistan − With observations upon the present critical state and future prospects of those Countries, published in Philadelphia. Harlan attacked his old British enemies from Afghanistan and called the British imperial system despicable. Most alarmingly, he wrote about the ease with which Russia could, if it so chose, attack and seriously harm the British Empire.

Harlan was denounced in Britain, although, as one historian has observed, his book was "officially discredited, but secretly read, under the table, by historians and British strategists".[3] The American press did not pan him, but the controversy ensured that he would never publish another book.

With his funds dwindling, Harlan began taking on new tasks. He began lobbying the American government to import camels to settle the Western United States. His real hope was that they would order their camels from Afghanistan and send him there as purchasing agent. Harlan convinced the government that camels would be a worthy investment (Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was particularly interested), but it was decided that it would be cheaper to import them from Africa than from Afghanistan. When the US Army discovered the resistance of American horses, mules, and cows to the aggressive camels, the Camel Corps was disbanded in 1863. Camels were set free in Arizona.

Harlan next decided that he would convince the government to buy Afghan grapes. He spent two years working on this venture, but the coming of the American Civil War prevented this. Harlan then proposed to raise a regiment.

Always horrified by slavery, he raised a Union regiment 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry[4] of which he was colonel,[5] but he was used to dealing with military underlings in the way an oriental prince would. This led to a messy court-martial, but the aging Harlan ended his service due to medical problems.

He wound up in San Francisco, working as a doctor, dying of tuberculosis in 1871. He was essentially forgotten. His remains were buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco (now defunct), but were moved and his gravesite is unknown[6]

In popular culture[edit]


See also[edit]



  • Macintyre, Ben (2004). Josiah the Great : the true story of the man who would be king. London: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-00-715107-1. 
  • Macintyre, Ben (2004). The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-20178-4. 
  • Harlan, Josiah (1987). A Man of Enterprise: The Short Writings of Josiah Harlan. New York, NY, USA: Afghanistan Forum. OCLC 20388056. 

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