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The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  472 ratings  ·  49 reviews
The riveting story that inspired Kipling's classic tale and a John Huston movie

The true story of Josiah Harlan, a Pennsylvania Quaker and the first American ever to enter Afghanistan, has never been told before. Soldier, spy, doctor, naturalist, traveler and writer, Josiah Harlan wanted to be a king, with all the imperialist hubris of his times. In an amazing twenty-year j
Paperback, 368 pages
Published May 4th 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published January 1st 2004)
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3.85  · 
Rating details
 ·  472 ratings  ·  49 reviews

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(Originally read December 2008. Rereading February 2016, a "The Second Time Around" book)

Original review, December 12, 2008

Who knew that Kipling's famous tale was loosely based on the exploits of an American adventurer? I sure didn't, but was fascinated by this literary predecessor. MacIntyre's colorful biography traces the rise of one Josiah Harlan, a lapsed Quaker from Chester County, Pennsylvania, whose nominally harebrained schemes to pursue glory in remote regions beyond the Indian frontier
Gerald Sinstadt
Sep 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
The True Story of The Man who would be King, says the subtitle to my edition; the qualification is important, for without it the reader might regard this as a wonderful piece of picaresque fiction.

Josiah Harland is seen as the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's Kim, though with a back story that might have been found in Mark Twain. Having set out from Pennsylvania in November 1827 to visit the dark areas of central Asia, Josiah learns he has been dumped by his fiancée and decides to stay on. Twen
Lauren Contreras-Loreto
I was not very impressed with the writing style of the author, but Josiah Harlan was absolutely amazing!
M.K. Gilroy
Feb 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: classic-reads
I loved the Michael Caine and Sean Connery movie, The Man Who Would Be King, that 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 Afgha
Whilst I've heard of the Kipling short story, The Man Who Would Be King, and the film based on it, I've never read or seen either. And to be honest, now I've read the history of the man who inspired the story, I'm not sure I want to - why would I read fiction when a true-life version is just as incredible?

Josiah Harlan lived a truly extraordinary life, and perhaps the most extraordinary thing was that he had the audacity to attempt any of it. After leaving the United States with a broken heart a
Nov 05, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of Macintyre's earlier books, his writing is not as polished as later efforts like Agent Zig-Zag or Operation Mincemeat, but this is still a compelling tale of the first American "campaign" in Afghanistan, an audacious journey taken by one of history's great footnotes, Josiah Harlan. In the mid-nineteenth century, Harlan, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, made his way first to British India, thence to Afghanistan, in search of adventure. Without formal training or legal qualifications of any kind, ...more
Feb 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
An American goes to Afghanistan with little knowledge of the local people and their customs looking to establish a political empire and bring the fruits of western civilisation. Stop me if you think you've heard this one before, but I doubt you've heard it quite like this!

A fascinating read about a virtually unknown Josiah Harlan and what is, by all accounts, a life that contained enough action for at least five others. From Pennsylvania Quakers to Afghani tribes, Imperial geopolitics and the Am
Sep 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
Really interesting story of All-American kook Josiah Harlan, a Pennsylvania Quaker who took a romantic jilting so bad he went to Afghanistan, where he meddled in local politics and almost got his keister handed to him on several occasions.

I guess they jilted more ferociously in the 1820s or whenever it was. Today the girl would just inform Josiah via Facebook.

Anyhoo, the story gets a little tedious at times. Hard to keep track of which guy named Mohammed is plotting against the other Mohammeds.
William DuFour
Dec 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
An intriguing bio on a man whose name should have be more recognized and revered as an explorer, adventurer in an unknown part of the world at that time.
Jul 31, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography
This is one of those books where you learn that history can be more interesting than fiction. This book feels like it should be made into a film (although I suppose it has in a way, since Kipling used Harlan's story for inspiration for The Man Who Would Be King.)

A random American guy, a Quaker from Pennsylvania managed to make his way to Afghanistan and become enmeshed with the politics, becoming a prince along the way. It's an unbelievable story, but it did happen.

It's thoroughly researched an
Raymond Hwang
Mar 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Ben Macintyre reveals a nugget of history forgotten by time. Josiah Harlan lived the life of an adventurer with boldness. This Quaker by birth would ironically become a General of an army and named a prince of Afghanistan. Macintyre weaves an exciting tale of life in uncharted territory, dangerous bandits and amazing people.
Mark Short
Jan 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book is well worth reading. A true tale covering an incredible story of an astonishing man. It certainly improved my knowledge of the history of the time.
Graham Senders
Mar 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Yes, quite a story, a boy's own adventure and all that. But for all that introduced me to an aspect of history that I knew nothing about before.
Apr 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Pros: Very interesting subject!! Thought the book was well written and researched. I really like how the author started and ended the book - with his own experience in the region and then getting into the autobiography of the first American Afghan King. Its also good to have a historical reference of this area that has had so much strife, violence yet beauty and amazing surroundings. Familiar players of the Russians, British and American intervention.

Cons: Felt that I struggled a bit more with
Michael Moseley
Ben Macintyre as Joshua the great was slow read initially. This book was purchased as a present and I felt obliged to read to the end. Initially Joshua Harlan’s travels through Asia seemed complex and overly detailed. This American adventure spent the early part of the 19th century wandering around remote parts of Asia.

This tale of Afghanistan from 160 years ago is very poignant with the current conflict in that region. Harlan’s adventures could not be played out in the modern world but in the t
Rick Skwiot
Nov 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
Josiah Harlan’s improbable life’s journey—from Pennsylvania Quaker to Afghani military leader and prince to American Civil War colonel—makes for compelling reading as crafted by Ben Macintyre in The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan. Harlan was likely the model for Daniel Dravot and in Rudyard Kipling’s short story of the same name, which was made into a marvelous film by John Huston in 1975, with Sean Connery as Dravot and Michael Caine as his sidekick Peachy Carnehan.

Michael Burnam-Fink
Dec 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history, 2015
A fascinating bit of imperial history, The Man Who Would Be King traces the true story of Josiah Harlan, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, who in the 1820s journeyed to British India to make his fortune as a military surgeon. Harlan decided he wanted more, and became a self-made player in the Great Game, using his natural talents and self-taught skills in medicine, diplomacy, and warfare, to serve the last great Oriental potentates (Shah Shujah al-Moolk, Amir Dost Mohammed Khan, Maharaja Ranjit Singh) ...more
Pendred Noyce
Aug 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Ben Macintyre makes a specialty of writing about odd, adventurous real characters, but Josiah Harlan, a Pennsylvania Quaker who wanted to walk in Alexander's footsteps and rule in Afghanistan, is the oddest adventurer of all. He worked for the British East India Company, did a tiny bit of soldiering,taught himself a few medical remedies, and then went to offer himself as a doctor or general to various shahs, maharajas and chiefs at the edges of British .

A devoted botanist as well as a man of un
Aug 03, 2007 rated it really liked it
Who would have guessed that the man who inspired Kipling's story, "The Man Who Would be King" was in fact an American adventurer of the 19th Century, Josiah Harlan and a man who was raised as a Quaker growing up in Pennsylvania. Devastated by a failed love affair, he went off to Asia for over 20 years. He joined the British army in Burma and served as a doctor, without the benefit of medical training. He eventually served as the commander of the Afghan army before becoming ruler of his own count ...more
May 10, 2014 rated it liked it
The account of Josiah Harlan's adventures in the near East (India and Afghanistan) in the 1800's is interesting and fascinating. From his Quaker roots in Pennsylvania he wends his way to the near East (basically India and Afghanistan) and provides his services as a surgeon (which he legally wasn't) to the British. Eventually, in the "secret" service of the British and flying the American flag, he heads to Afghanistan to find out if the current leader can be overthrown. Enraptured with Afghanista ...more
Rick Sterling
Mar 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Josiah Harlan from Pennsylvania was the first American to enter Afghanistan, spending decades in Central Asia. During that time he was variously employed by the Maharaja of Punjab, by a former King of Afghanistan who was in exile, and by the man who drove that King from the throne. He declared himself Prince of Ghor, returned to the U.S. where he raised a regiment in the Civil War.

This is an amazing true story of a man who made himself an Afghan prince, but who died in San Francisco in poverty a
Jul 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I'm always intrigued by non-fiction that is populated with figures that are far more colorful than any author could invent. Josiah Harlan began his life a Quaker and journeyed for twenty years in British occupied India and central Asia, becoming an adviser to kings and a king himself along the way.
Another selling point: the author has a deliciously dry British wit that allows the hilarity of many events in this book to come to life. Read it!
Andy Lopata
Jul 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Not as free flowing as many of Macintyre's other books but compelling nonetheless. A perfect holiday read as you need some time to devote with each sitting.

More than a biography of an adventurer, this book provides a very interesting insight into the world of India and Afghanistan in the early 19th Century. As the epilogue highlights, it also helps to put today's troubles for the West in this part of the world into distinct context.
Kurtis Amundson
A thrilling story about the first American in Afghanistan who inspired Kipling's tale, 'The Man Who Would Be King'. This biography tells the story of Josiah Harlan's journey of manhood from a young Quaker surgeon, through the ranks of the British army, to the harsh frontiers of India, his position in the courts of the great Rajahs, leading armies over the Hindu Kush, and finally, his accomplishment of his goal to be a sovereign ruler as Prince of Ghor.
Thomas Lang
Aug 26, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
The true story of an American Quaker who ends up in Afghanistan over 100 years ago. The alleged basis for the short story by Rudyard Kipling 'The Man Who Would be King' and the epic Micheal Caine/Sean Connery movie by the same title. If you are interested in the area, time period or short story I would recommend this read. Other wise I wouldnt. Written more as a scholar paper than a book. It is well researched. Its a rag to riches to.... well im not going to ruin it, story.
Mar 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing
one of the most fascinating stories I have read - all apparently true - a single Quaker American - rather stodgy and lonely - spends years in this fractionated society of Afghanistan. Helps one see why Afghanistan is virtually ungovernable - he is a 19th century Alexander - by his own account as well as this well written history. I do recommend it.
Don Wilton
Absorbing read, its a long time since I enjoyed a book so much. Gives an insight into the rivalry and political intrigue that have shaped Afghanistan's history since the 18th centuary. Not so much a country more a grouping of rival, warring fiefdoms that become united only for the purposes of opposing would be imperialist conquerors.
A truly wild and bizarre story of audacious imperialism. It begs to be told, with all the right elements: exotic locale, brash and eccentric characters and the sheer weirdness of having really taken place. Pity, then that the narration is rambling and unstructured, the prose bland and uninteresting, generic in that popular-history sort of way. A waste of made-to-order raw material.
Tres Herndon
Jul 15, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Josiah Harlan should be an American legend, but instead he's almost completely forgotten. This book sheds light on his incredible life, and maintains current relevance since much of the story takes place in modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much of the rest of the players in the tale are pretty colorful. Well written piece on an interesting man and time period.
Scott Vizcarra
Feb 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Now this was one of the better books I have read in a long time. I love the Kipling story and even the film too, but this story is fascinating to me. I highly reccomend it and will read it again. Also the last place he inhabited in San Francisco practising as a doctor turns out to have been used lately as a drug store chain for decades recently and just went out of bussiness. How ironic.
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Ben Macintyre is a writer-at-large for The Times of London and the bestselling author of A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, and Rogue Heroes, among other books. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work.