Saturday, January 4, 2014

An American Marco Polo: Josiah Harlan

Quaker, ruler of Gujrat in the northern Punjab, General of Afghanistan, all-around schemer and adventurer.

The adventures of Marco Polo (1254-1324) are famous, mostly because they were so well recorded. He followed the briefly open silk road during the heyday of Kublai Khan, travelling all over the far East, and ruling briefly in the Khan's service in China. But when he returned to Venice, he was overtaken by the vortex of local politics, and was co-imprisoned with a gifted writer who helped put his extraordinary, yet quite accurate, tales into clear and compelling prose. Tales that came to be disbelieved after the silk road closed up again with the dissolution of the Mongol empire.

Unfortunately, Josiah Harlan (1799-1871) had no practiced ghost-writer, and was so politically vociferous in his anti-imperial writings that his lengthy memoir never heard the clang of a printing press. Nevertheless, his story has obvious parallels with Polo's, and contains interesting lessons for our own brushes with imperialism.

The book is "The man who would be King: the first American in Afghanistan", by Ben MacIntyre. Harlan was born into a mecantile family, for whom he shipped out to Canton and points east as "supercargo", or manager and sales agent for a ship's mechandise. Hearing from afar that his recent fiancé had married another, he decided to never come back, and gave himself up to what he seems to have wanted to do anyhow, which was follow a life of adventure in the East, following the trails of Alexander the Great, the British Imperialists, etc. It is interesting to note that while most venturesome energy in the US was directed Westward, Harlan had been bitten, via brother Richard and lengthy immersion in Greek and Roman history, with the bug of the old world and its more exotic precincts.

Eventually, he hired on with the British East India Company as a doctor for which he had no expertise whatsoever, and gained familiarity with India and its frontiers. But his eventually formulated aim was to become a ruler somewhere, preferably Afghanistan, whose ever-volatile political system seemed ripe for just his kind of energy and interloping adventure. So he started playing politics, offering his services to those out of power (an exiled former king of Afghanistan) to scheme against those in power. (Cut to a long march into, then out of Afghanistan... and a decade-long interlude in the service of a Punjabbi Maharaja, eventually governing one of his districts.)

Over time, he finally gained entrance to the inner circle of Afghanistan's rulers, and his appreciation for their merits increased markedly, causing him to switch sides from the exiled ruler. Unfortunately, just after Harlan was appointed general by the Afghan ruler Dhost Muhammed Khan and conducted a remarkable and immensely arduous expedition north to parlay with and / or defeat the various Uzbek and Hazzara chiefs around Mazar-e Shrif, the British decided they wanted to rule Afghanistan. How dare they?!

As is by now well known, the British army marched into Afghanistan in vast force, easily defeated the locals, and settled into what they thought was another India-style posting, with polo and partying. But not for long... these locals were not obsequious farmers and caste-ridden hierarchs, amenable to foreign rule. No, the Afghans are freedom-loving, highly martial, fissiparous, and blessed with a religion that prizes power and warfare, and with a mountainous country ideal for guerilla warfare. Only a single Englishman escaped alive.

The British had also placed their bets on Harlan's previous employer- the exiled king Shah Shujah, who was in every way a bad bet as their puppet: cruel, out-of-touch, and incompetent. Harlan astonished the British with his very existence and high position, and during their occupation, argued feverishly for better administration:

"I have seen this country, sacred to the harmony of hallowed solitude, desecrated by the rude intrusion of senseless stranger boots, vile in habits, infamous in vulgar tastes, the prompt and apathetic intruments of master minds, callous leaders in the sangiunary march of heeless conquests, who crushed the feeble heart and hushed the merry voice of mirth, hilarity, and joy." 
"To subdue and crush the masses of a nation by military force, when all are unanimous in the determination to be free, is to attempt the imprisonment of a whole people: all such projects must be temporary and transient, and terminate in a catastrophe that force has ever to dread from vigorous, ardent, concentrated vengeance of a nation outraged, oppressed, and insulted, and desperate with the blind fury of a determined and unanimous will."

In short, he urged the British to buy off the major tribes with plenty of bribes, and include them in the government. Harlan ended up making his way back to the US and retired to a farm, where he kept scheming, to establish camels in the US military, to transplant Afghan grapes, and write vast books. He raised a regiment for the Civil war, and died lonely and destitute in that haven of adventurers, San Franscisco. It is a remarkable biography, under-appreciated in American history.

How are we doing in the present day? We are bribing the Afghans copiously.. check. We have a ruler in Hamid Karzai who is not incompetent or excessively cruel, but isn't exactly an historic stateman, either. Check. Will he be able to peacably retire to his fruit orchards in Afghanistan when his term is up and the US continues to melt away? When the foreign money dries up? Our program for Afghanistan requires some deep cultural change, in that elections are supposed to determine who has power, and merit determine who occupies the civil service. But the culture has never been democratic, rather thoroughly aristocratic, with patronage / clientage the vital transmission mechanism. The heads of families and tribes are the only people whose votes count, competing endlessly among each other for position. Can the two systems merge into a working state?

The US experiment has gone longer and better than the Russian, let alone the British, occupations. But whether it sticks in a final, cultural sense, is impossible to tell, and on that everything hangs.


  • Kansas: infra-red Aynrandistan?
  • A libertarian rethink.
  • Do all the wrong people admit being wrong?
  • More on the middle class and inequality.
  • Ella in a some serious scat. And with Mel TormĂ©.
  • State of finance, 2014.
  • Big data + free market + corporate oligopoly + no more privacy = another disaster.
  • Are unions the answer to the disappearing middle class?
  • This week in the Wall Street Journal: "In a republic, if majorities can change laws or rules however they please, you're on the road to life with no rules and no laws."
  • Again, money is a far greater danger to the Republic than snooping as it is currently done, despite the year of Snowden, etc.
  • Economics graph of the week. Whose money is pegged to whom?
Countries pegged more or less to either the dollar (green) or the Euro (blue).

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