The True Story of the Man Who Would Be King

For years I have joked that it was old British movies that made me love imperialism. When I watched films like the Four Feathers and Gunga Din on our black and white TV, I knew there was a historical background but I was in it for the action and adventure. Two of my favorite films growing up were Zulu and The Man Who Would Be King, both starring Michael Caine. My brother and I would “play Zulu” with our neighbors on a regular basis. Two of us would play the British, crouching at the bottom of a small hill with wooden rifles. The other two would play the Zulus, hurling a stream of sticks at the (very) thin red line. To represent their enormous army and British firepower, the Zulus would get gunned down over and over again until was time for hand to hand combat. Then we’d switch sides and do it all over again. Considering the number of sticks we threw at each other, I’m surprised none of us lost an eye.

It is thus no surprise that when I was in NYC a couple of months back and browsing the temple of knowledge that is The Strand, I was drawn to a book called Josiah the Great: The True Story of the Man Who Would Be King. A quick skim convinced me to pick it up and I’m glad I did. Ben Macintyre has written a cracking good biography of a little known American named Josiah Harlan, who was likely the inspiration for Kipling’s tale. Harlan was a Pennsylvania Quaker who swore he would never return to America when his lover jilted him. He traveled to India in 1820 and on the strength of having read his brother’s textbooks got a job as a surgeon in the army of the British East India Company.

This proved just the start of an amazing series of adventures inspired by his idol, Alexander the Great. He met the ousted ruler of Afghanistan and offered to put the man back on the throne in exchange the viziership. He then recruited a small mercenary army under American colors and marched into Afghanistan. Harlan should have died 20 times over but somehow he did not. He ended up working for Dost Mohammed Khan, the very man he had sought to depose. He became a governor for many years and eventually led the Khan’s army. He led an expedition into the Hindu Kush, and while there won a princedom of his own. He never had a chance to rule, however, as the British were marching on Kabul by the time he returned. He was forced to leave Afghanistan and eventually returned to America. He attempted several schemes to get himself back to Central Asia, including one to import camels for use by the US army, but never returned to claim his princedom. Still, this unlikely character managed to raise an American flag in the Hindu Kush in 1839 and become Prince of Ghor, even if briefly.

Ben Macintyre has done some excellent historical detective work and manages to skillfully evoke both the period and Harlan’s eccentric personality. If you like true tales of adventure, I heartily recommend Josiah the Great.

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