I loved the Michael Caine and Sean Connery movie, The Man Who Would Be King, which came out when I was in high school. The John Huston film was nominated for four Academy Awards. Christopher Plummer played the role of a young journalist by the name of Rudyard Kipling – and the film was based on the Kipling’s short story by the same name.
But who knew that Kipling’s literary bon mot was inspired by a true story – and that truth truly is stranger than fiction?
In 1989, Ben Macintyre was sent to Afghanistan to cover the final stages of the 10 year war between the Soviets and the CIA-backed Mujahideen guerrillas. While there he read Kipling’s tale of Daniel Dravot (written in 1888 but looking back to the middle of the Victorian Age, the 1820s and 30s), who made it to the heart of Afghanistan disguised as a Muslim holy man to become king of a fierce tribal empire. It was several years later, while combing through stacks of books in the British Library that Macintyre first discovered the name of a man who “reputedly inspired Rudyard Kipling’s story, ‘The Man Who Would Be King.'”
So began Macintyre’s search for an elusive footnote in history – all his papers were assumed to have been destroyed in a house fire in 1929 – that culminated in The Man Who Would Be King, a fascinating slice of history that is relevant to today’s most pressing geopolitical hotspot. Following clues that led him from Britain’s war archives to the Punjab, San Francisco, and Pennsylvania, Macintyre was finally able to find a box hidden away in the basement of the archives in a tiny U.S. museum of this mysterious man’s birthplace. At the bottom of the box was a “document, written in Persian and stamped with an intricately beautiful oval seal: a treaty, 170 years old, forged between an Afghan prince and the man who would be king.”
The first American in Afghanistan had many titles: Prince of Ghor, Paramount Chief of the Hazarajat, Lord of Kurram, personal surgeon to Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Five Rivers, King of Afghanistan … and many others. His highness Halan Sahib – who in 1839, enthroned on a bull elephant, raised his standard and made claim to the Hindu Kush – was known back home in Chester County, Pennsylvania, as Josiah Harlan. The man who followed Alexander the Great’s winding mountain path 21 centuries later and led an army made up of Afghan Pathans, Persian Qizilibash, Hindus, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras who were descendents of the Mongolian Hordes, a pacifist Quaker of Chester County, Pennsylvania.
If you like history, biographies, and tales that seem too fanciful to be true, you’ll love The Man Would Be King.