Aug 01 2009

The Man Who Would be King

Published by at 12:12 pm under Books

“The First American in Afghanistan”
by Ben Macintyre

This is the story of an American from a Quaker family in Pennsylvania who went to sea to seek his fortune before marrying, was jilted by his fiancé while in India, and then set off into India to forget his love and follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. A very hardy, adventurous, and lucky Quaker. He first served with the British as a doctor but then headed off into the border fiefdoms in North India and ultimately to Afghanistan where he, technically, became a king and opposed the British Raj. Josiah Harlan was a real person and his adventures were real as best the author can discern. He likely was the inspiration for Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”.
The travels, scenes, and cultures he encounters seem very medieval. His travels and relationships were aided by the shock value a foreigner in Afghanistan had back in that era and the impact of, mostly military, European technology on the indigenous people of India and Afghanistan. He had entrée to ruler’s because of where he came from, but he made great advantage of the opportunities.
In many ways it is amazing how little the area seems to have changed since 1840 or so when he was traveling. Clan or tribe based loyalties still dominate society and relationships. Distrust of foreigners, many vendettas based on old insults and rivalries, and violence are still the rife. Brothers plot against brothers, usually half brothers due to polygamy. All males have and know how to use guns. Ambush and raid are a way of life.
As I was finishing this book, I happened to listen to an unusually frank sounding “Economist” interview with a Pakistani General in charge of their Frontier Force which is in charge of security in the Frontier, AKA Tribal, area of Pakistan. The Frontier Force is organized into Platoons which are all from the same tribe or geographical area. Recruits are easy to train since “everybody has and knows how to use a gun” (and some know grenade launchers and machine guns). Nothing has changed except the tools.
All in all a cautionary tale about Afghanistan: Fraught with incredibly complex ‘politics’ between and within tribes. They unite and stop fighting each other only when an outside power tries to control the place. As an epilogue on the death of the last King from Harlan’s period and killing of the President installed by the Russians in the 90’s makes clear, it is still a violent and brutal place. Like old days.
A very interesting and well told biography.

No responses yet

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.