Josiah Harlan was born in Newlin Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania on 12 June, 1799. His parents, Joshua Harlan and Sarah Hinchman, were Quakers, and Josiah and his nine siblings were raised in a strict and pious home. His father was a merchant in Philadelphia and several of his sons would end up as merchants as well. Josiah’s destiny, however, was to be very different. When his mother died, she left a $2,000 inheritance to her three daughters. Harlan and his six brothers, on the other hand, were expected to build their own fortunes.

The Quakers, who originated in seventeenth-century England, were dissenting Protestants who broke away from the Church of England. They emphasised a direct relationship to god through Jesus Christ and and were committed to a private life that emphasised emotional purity. They were also known to be pacifists and had often refused to serve as combatants during times of war.

Harlan, however, defied the stereotypes usually associated with Quakerism. Harlan left Philadelphia for the first time when he was around twenty-one on a ship bound for Calcutta, Canton and Shanghai, leaving his sweetheart, Elizabeth Swain, behind. When he returned some months later, he discovered that she had found another man in his absence.

Heartbroken and chagrined, the young man set sail again and ended up in Calcutta, where the British East India Company was headquartered. The Company was about to get involved in a war in Burma and needed surgeons.

Lacking a formal medical training, Harlan presented himself to the medical board for examination and through self-study, even managed to pass. He was appointed surgeon to the Calcutta General Hospital and for the next two years, served in Burma until he was injured and sent back.

After he had recovered, Harlan was posted to Karnal, north of Delhi. Restless and eager to make his fortune, he started chafing at the business of taking orders and decided to leave the Company’s employment. Harlan had always had an ambivalent attitude towards his employer; while he had a romantic love for the pomp and ceremony of the British monarchy, which the Company represented, he was fiercely independent and very proud that his country was a republic. Right around this time, he stumbled upon a colourful account of Afghanistan, written by Mountstuart Elphinstone, a representative of the East India Company. Harlan was fascinated by the account of the Afghan court and had a deep desire to observe a real monarchy in operation. The Indian rajas that he had encountered seemed to wield no real power and were effectively puppets of the Company.

Harlan travelled to Ludhiana, a border outpost of British India on the Sutlej river, which formed the border between Ranjit Singh’s empire and British India at the time. Having heard tales of well-paid European officers serving in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, he decided to seek his fortune in Lahore. In Ludhiana, while awaiting permission to cross the Sutlej, for no foreigners were allowed to enter the Maharaja’s kingdom without his permission, he met the exiled Afghan king Shuja Shah al-Mulk, the grandson of Ahmed Shah Abdali, who had terrorised Punjab in the seventeenth century.

Harlan’s next adventure was about to begin.

When Harlan stumbled upon Shah Shuja in Ludhiana, Dost Mohammad of the Barakzai clan was ruling Khorasan. Shah Shuja, who had already made other failed attempts to recover his throne, was persuaded by Harlan to recruit him into his service.

In his memoirs, Harlan claimed that Shah Shuja conferred upon him the lofty title “Mukarrib-ul-Khakan Unees ud-Dowlah Bahadur” (Companion of the Imperial Stirrup and dearest friend of the Empire and the Brave) and tasked him with helping him win his throne back.

On October 15, 1827, Harlan left Ludhiana for Peshawar and Kabul as Shah Shuja’s “secret agent” to hatch a plot to depose Dost Mohammad. Travelling in disguise as a darvesh or Sufi Muslim holy man, he arrived in Kabul, and sought refuge in the home of Jabar Khan, one of Dost Mohammad’s brothers, who was inimical to him. Harlan posed as an agent of the British government, rather than disclosing that he was in the service of Shah Shuja. In Kabul, Harlan concluded that Dost Mohammad’s position was too strong; giving up his plans, he decided to seek his fortune in Lahore again, his mission for Shah Shuja swiftly forgotten.

Harlan appears in the accounts of various travellers and Company officials who visited Punjab during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. One of them was the Reverend Joseph Wolff who visited India in 1832.

Born a Jew in Germany, Joseph Wolff converted to Christianity and became a wandering preacher, publishing several journals documenting his adventures in India and Central Asia. In 1828, Wolff set out to search for the lost tribes of Israel, travelling through Anatolia, Armenia and Afghanistan to Punjab, suffering many hardships along the way, but preaching with enthusiasm.

In June 1832, Wolff found himself in Gujrat, a kingdom within the dominions of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. When he arrived, he was taken to the palace of the governor, who had been expecting him as it was customary for all foreign visitors to report to the Maharaja’s provincial governors to state the purpose of their visit.

Much to his surprise, when he entered the palace, he heard someone singing Yankee Doodle in a nasal voice that had an unmistakable American twang. Wolff described the governor as a tall, fine-looking man, impeccably dressed in European clothes and smoking a hookah.

When Wolff somewhat incredulously asked him how he knew the song, the governor somewhat grandiosely proclaimed: “I am a free citizen of the United States of North America, from the State of Pennsylvania, and the city of Philadelphia. I am the son of a Quaker. My name is Josiah Harlan.”

Harlan had arrived in Lahore in March of 1829 and had first sought out the Maharaja’s French general, Jean Francois Allard, who was a great favourite at court. Ranjit Singh, always fearful of the Company’s designs, was extremely wary of Englishmen, suspecting that they might be spies. However, Allard and other European officers had won his confidence and had risen to positions of importance. When Harlan expressed a desire to serve the Maharaja, Allard warned him that the process would be slow. Winning the Maharaj’s trust was no easy task. Introduced by Allard to the Mahajara, Harlan started lobbying for a position. He was readily offered a military command, which he politely declined as he had his sights on something more lucrative. His opening came somewhat serendipitously, thanks to his medical expertise. It turned out that the Maharaja was a hypochondriac, given to turning to every possible source of medical advice and treatment. Harlan seized upon the opportunity and started a medical practice in Lahore with the monarch as his primary patient. This gave him the opportunity to build a relationship with the Maharaja and lobby for an administrative role.

In December 1829, Ranjit Singh decided to appoint him governor of the kingdoms of Nurpur and Jasrota, small principalities in the Himalayan hills that had been annexed by Lahore. These were unimportant territories and governing them was to be Harlan’s test. Ranjit Singh was quite satisfied with his performance as governor.

In May 1831, he was asked to swear an oath of perpetual loyalty to the monarch and was appointed governor of Gujrat, which was a more important territory. The appointment came with a warning.

He was to be paid the princely salary of three thousand rupees a month, which would be raised if he was successful. If he failed, he would forfeit his nose. Wolff observed that the governor of Gujrat must have been doing a reasonably good job because when he met him, his nose was still intact.

By 1834, the Sikh forces, led by Hari Singh Nalwa, had occupied the strategic city of Peshawar on the Afghan border, which had earlier been in the hands of the Afghans. In 1835, Dost Mohammad took the title of Emir of Afghanistan, which conferred spiritual authority upon him to wage war on unbelievers, and decided to launch a jihad against the Sikhs to recapture Peshawar. Ranjit Singh entrusted Harlan with the delicate task of negotiating with Sultan Mohammad Khan, Dost Mohammad’s brother and former ruler of Peshawar, to strike an alliance with him and win over his 10,000-strong army of Afghan tribesmen to Ranjit Singh’s side.

Mohan Lal Kashmiri, one of the first locals to receive an English education in Delhi, and munshi (secretary) to the celebrated British traveller and adventurer, Sir Alexander Burnes, who passed through Peshawar on his travels, paints an unflattering potrait of Sultan Mohammad Khan in his memoir:

Sultan Mohammed Khan, the present governor of Peshawer, commonly called Sardar, is a man of middle stature. He has passed the meridian of life, and is fond of pleasure. He is notorious for his lewdness, and is always surrounded by females, both married and unmarried. He is careless of his country and government, and always employed in adorning himself with splendid and precious robes, on account of which he is called Sultan Bibi.

Harlan was successful in his diplomatic efforts and “Sultan Bibi” was duly recruited into Ranjit Singh’s service against his brother, Dost Mohammad, who had started to advance towards Peshawar at the head of a host of 50,000.

After Sultan Mohammed Khan’s betrayal became apparent, Dost Mohammad dispatched one of his ablest commanders, Nawab Jabbar Khan to pre-empt his defection. Harlan was with Sultan Mohammed Khan when Nawab Jabbar Khan arrived, followed by the Emir. Everything was up in the air at this point. Sultan Mohammed had defected, but was careful to not make it apparent to his brother, Dost Mohammad, instead preferring to continue to swear allegiance to him, at least in his presence.

Harlan’s first meeting with Emir Dost Mohammad, therefore, was not a pleasant one. When it became apparent that Harlan had been responsible for almost turning his brother against him, the Emir was furious. Harlan had to use all his charm and considerable diplomatic skills to leave the Afghan camp unharmed. Only after swearing fealty to the Emir, a copy of the Quran in his hand, was Harlan allowed to leave. Neither he nor the Emir, of course, were aware at that time that their paths were to cross again, in very different circumstances.

Meanwhile, a strong Sikh force sent to Peshawar under the command of General Paolo Avitabile, an Italian general in Ranjit Singh’s service, coupled with Harlan’s efforts, resulted in Dost Mohammad standing down and eventually returning to Kabul. Harlan and Fakir Azizuddin, Ranjit Singh’s very capable Foreign Minister, had been sent again to deal with Dost Mohammad, who ignored the usual protections enjoyed by envoys and seized them and turned them over to Sultan Mohammad, who pretended to play along and set them free as soon as his brother retreated. Peshawar thus remained in Ranjit Singh’s domains without a battle. It was a victory of sorts for Harlan since he had played a critical part in the entire episode.

The heavens continued to smile on Josiah Harlan and he continued to serve as the governor of Gujrat until April 1836, when he was expelled from Punjab by Ranjit Singh. Why this happened is a matter of some controversy.

On August 19, 1835, Maharaja Ranjit Singh suffered a stroke. Harlan, who had served as a doctor under the British and had practised medicine in Lahore earlier, was among those consulted. But Harlan was also engaged in another venture at the time.

John Martin Honigberger, the Hungarian homeopath, who had spent many years in Lahore as a physician in the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (and was also in charge of manufacturing gunpowder for the Lahore artillery), writes in his memoirs about how Harlan claimed to be practising alchemy when in reality he was actually forging coins.

Harlan was already under a cloud because Ranjit Singh was aware of his counterfeit coin-making enterprise, but matters came to a head because of his behaviour during his master’s illness.

There are varying accounts about what exactly led to Harlan’s dismissal; one account suggests that Harlan offered to cure his master if he was paid the sum of 100,000 rupees, a demand which would have been seen as impudent. A second account says that Harlan felt that Ranjit Singh’s health could be restored by a “galvanic treatment” – by passing electricity through the ailing king’s body. He demanded the sum of 5000 pounds sterling to construct a “galvanic battery” advance, as he did not “trust the Maharaja”. This display of greed and disrespect enraged Ranjit Singh and he proceeded to strip Harlan of his lucrative governorship and banish him from his kingdom.

The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia

Excerpted with permission from The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia, Sabpreet Singh, Tranquebar.