An American Quaker in Afghanistan: Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor

I am an adventurer by nature. I mean the kind of adventurer who has enjoyed trekking through far-flung places: the Indian state of Kashmir, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, to name but a few of the off the beaten track destinations I’ve visited. I prefer places without mod cons. Places where I have to rough it (which you wouldn’t guess if you were to look at me!). I’ve thought nothing  of sleeping in drafty old mountainside barns, along  with livestock, for the privileged of experiencing unspoiled parts of the world where few Westerners have ever travelled.

And I’ve finally found a distant relation I think would have appreciate this.  This cousin happens to be the first American to step foot in Afghanistan.

Josiah Harlan in his Afghan robes. The only known photograph of him.
Josiah Harlan in his Afghan robes. The only known photograph of him. Image is in the public domain

19th Century Pennsylvania-born Quaker Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor (Afghanistan).  He’s my second cousin quite a few times removed on my mother’s side of the family. The more I read about him, the more I feel he’s a kindred spirit. Restless in the times he lived in, definitely a non-conformist – he was a man who was never going to be a 9-5 white collar office kind of guy; although that was very much the world he was born into. A man who reputedly inspired the main character in Rudyard Kipling’s story The Man Who Would Be King.

A Memoir of India and Afghanistan, which is actually still in print!

Josiah wrote a memoir of India and Afghanistan in 1842 (A Memoir of India and Afghanistan − With observations upon the present critical state and future prospects of those Countries).  His story would have been well-known during the time Kipling lived in Afghanistan.

Josiah Harlan was born in Newlin Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania on 12 June 1799. He was the ninth of ten children. When his mother died, she left a 2000 dollar inheritance to each of her children – a small fortune back in those days. Harlan and his brothers, however, were expected to build their own fortunes. Josiah and his brothers all had an adventurous streak, and a number of them chose to explore various exotic locations. Josiah’s brother Richard worked as a doctor in India. Richard returned to America with tales of his experiences and set up a job for Josiah on a ship to Calcutta. At age 20, Josiah worked at sea for a little over a year, using his shore leaves to explore China and India.

When his fiancée broke off their engagement, Josiah returned to India and stayed overseas for almost 20 years (This resonates with me. I spent 30 years in the not-so-exotic England). Interestingly, Josiah wasn’t actually trained as a doctor. I’m not sure how he blagged that one. However, he worked as a surgeon with the East India Company, which allowed him to live in India. His desire for adventure and glory soon pushed him beyond India’s borders. In 1815, he read an account of the Kingdom of Kabul, and its dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India.  This book’s view of the Afghan Nation inspired Josiah’s goal to achieve the level of glory and riches described in this book.

I guess this where we differ. My treks to roughly the same part of the world were journies of enlightenment. A spiritual quest as it were. Josiah, it appears, was in it for the glory.

Map showing The location of Ludhiana in the Indian state of Punjab.
The location of Ludhiana in the Indian state of Punjab.
Image of Shah Shujah al-Moolk, circa 1835
Image of Shah Shujah-al-Moolk, circa 1835

His Central Asian saga began in the Indian border town of Ludhiana. It’s here that he met the deposed Afghan king, Shah Shujah-al-Moolk, who was in exile. Josiah approached him with a startling proposition: he would organize a rebellion against Dost Mohammed Khan, the usurper who had seized the crown.  In 1827, Josiah led a “ragtag” mob of Afghans, Muslims, Hindus, and Akali Sikhs off to Kabul. He followed the path Alexander the Great had taken into Afghanistan, both in travel and in politics. He disguised himself (as what, I don’t know) and slipped into Kabul.

By his own account, Josiah immediately fell in love with Kabul. He writes of “a jewel encircled by emerald, with flowers and blossoms whose odours perfume the air.” Its markets overflowed with fruit; grapes were so abundant that he fed them to his horse.

Image of Ranjit Singh, maharajah of the Punjab
Ranjit Singh, maharajah of the Punjab

Once he was in Kabul, Josiah survived a particularly virulent cholera epidemic. He credits “hard drinking and smoking intoxicating drugs,” in avoiding contracting the deadly disease. While there he heard rumours that Ranjit Singh, maharajah of the Punjab, was recruiting European generals. He rode to Lahore, where he met Singh, who granted him governorship of Gujrat. Joseph Wolff, an English missionary, sought a meeting with the Gujrat ruler, when “to his great surprise he heard someone singing ‘Yankee Doodle’.” Yep, this would be Josiah’s voice he heard.  Wolff described Josiah as a “fine, tall gentleman . . . with an Indian hookah in his mouth.”

Josiah was eventually sacked by Singh. The charge was for counterfeiting currency. Undaunted, Josiah struck oil in the ruins of a city razed by Genghis Khan, and later met the Hazara tribe – famed for its women, who were fearless hunters and famously beautiful.

Now quite a few adjectives get bandied about when it comes to Josiah during this period of his life. None of them are flattering: treacherous, duplicitous, and Machiavellian. While I don’t grasp all of his decisions, I’m trying to put myself in his shoes. He’s alone in a strange land where none of his fellow countrymen have ever been. I’m sure he was forced, many times, to live by his wits. Remember, there were no consulates or embassies to run to. Or, in the pursuit of glory, all other considerations were secondary.  I can’t make my mind up.

It’s reputed by the British (who occupied parts of Afghanistan at this time) that Josiah convinced the people of Kabul that he was a god. It’s worth noting at this point that the British were not Josiah’s biggest fans. Perhaps it was due to Josiah’s ‘going native’ – which was always a no-no with the British. Or perhaps it was because he upset the power balance in that part of Afghanistan where he settled by training the Afghans to fight.

Map showing the provice of Ghor in Afghanastan

Whatever the reason, Josiah became a prince through an agreement with the region’s ruler, Dost Mohammed Khan.

Image of  Dost Mohammad Khan
Image of Dost Mohammad Khan

In and amongst his personal papers, there is an ancient contract penned in Persian. By all accounts, this contract is stamped with an intricate and beautiful oval seal. Issued by a tribal leader, this contract granted him powers that included “the absolute and complete possession of his government.” Josiah had, indeed, become an Afghan suzerain (an autonomous sovereign). Which must have been anathema to the British government, which was engaged in annexing Afghanistan to its empire at the time. He ruled until 1839, resigning after British forces came to Kabul and reinstated an Afghani king.

After 20 years of adventure in India and Afghanistan, Josiah returned to the United States. He married Elizabeth Baker on 1 May 1849, in Chester County, Pennsylvania . Both were Quakers. Josiah was re-admitted back into the Friends after a judgment against him for violating the rules of pacifism had been withdrawn.

Harlan was feted as a national hero when he returned to America. His relationship with the American press was skillfully played. He instructed the press not to dwell on his royal title, since he “looks upon kingdoms and principalities as of frivolous import, when set in opposition to the honourable and estimable title of American citizen.” His glory quickly faded after the publication of his memoir, where he openly criticized the British and lauded the Russians, who were competing against the British for influence in this part of the world. It’s no surprise that Josiah was denounced in Britain.

Josiah became a consultant for the US government in the 1850’s during its quest to use camels as military transport in the deserts of the west. The US government opted for camels from North Africa instead, and a Turkish immigrant was used to secure them. All of Josiah’s plans to return to Afghanistan via a US government posting came to nothing.

Josiah wasn’t one to be idle. He turned a hand to botany. By all accounts he had a talent for it. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, he formed Harlan’s Light Cavalry (41 officers and 1,089 enlisted men) to fight for the Union. His abhorrence of slavery was his driving force. While I’ve read much of his writings, there isn’t any indication he was aware that his Harling cousins were slave owners in South Carolina. Whether or not he was aware of his own family’s connection to slavery, his Civil War gambit didn’t fare very well. Several subordinates objected to the old soldier’s abrasive manner and mutinied. There was even a messy court-martial.

Josiah died on 12 Oct 1871, while walking down the street in San Francisco, California.

As a result of a treaty Harlan signed, his heirs (which includes the 1978 Dawn of the Dead actor Scott Reiniger), are granted the title Prince of Ghor in perpetuity.

Whatever his faults and foibles may have been, I admire his adventurer’s spirit, his fortitude and his resilience.

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