‘… some damned odd fellows in the earlies.’: Three examples IX

More of the career of Josiah Harlan, possibly the first American to make it good in Afghanistan – and that too in the 1830s. (His compatriot, Colonel Alexander Campbell Gardner, of whom we have talked much in the preceding pages, had a sparkling career in the Punjab and ended his days in Kashmir, as a large landlord).

~~~ it was Harlan who successfully suborned the Governor of Peshawar to betray the province to the Sikhs. He then took service with Dost Mohammad (whom he had just betrayed), and was sent with an expedition against the Prince of Kunduz; it was in this campaign that the patriotic doctor “surmounted the Indian Caucasus, and unfurled my country’s banner to the breeze under a salute of 26 guns… the star-spangled banner waved gracefully among the icy peaks.” What this accomplished is unclear, but soon afterwards Harlan managed to obtain the throne of Ghor from its hereditary prince. This was in 1838; a year later he was acting as Dost’s negotiator with the British invaders at Kabul; Dost subsequently fled, and Harlan was last seen having breakfast with “Sekundar” Burnes, the British political agent.

Thus far Harlan’s story rests largely on a biographical sketch by the missionary, Dr Joseph Wolff; they met briefly during Harlan’s govenorship of Gujerat, but Wolff (who of course never had the advantage of reading the present packet of the Flashman Papers) confesses that he knows nothing of the American after 1839.

In fact, Harlan returned to the US in 1841 (after a short stint in Russia), married in 1849, raised Harlan’s Horse for the Union in the Civil War, was invalidated out, and ended his days practising medicine in San Francisco; obviously he must have revisited the Punjab in the 1840s when Flashman knew him. Of his appearance and character other contemporaries tell us little; Dr Wolff describes “a tall fine gentleman” given to whistling “Yankee Doodle”, and found his affable and engaging. Gardner mentions meeting him in Gujerat in the 1830s, but speaks no ill of him at that time.

This brings me to the third of the trio I mentioned….. one whom Flashman had never met, otherwise we would have another engaging and incisive pen-portrait.

Dr Joseph Wolff, D.D, LL.D (1795-1862) was a scholar, traveller and linguist whose adventures were even more eccentric than Harlan – the subject of his biography. Known as “the Christian Dervish”, and “the Protestant Xavier”, he was born in Germany, the son of a Jewish rabbi, and during his “extraordinary nomadic career” converted to Christianity, was expelled from Rome for questioning Papal infallibility, scoured the Middle East and the Far East in search of the Lost Tribes of Israel, preached Christianity in Jerusalem, was shipwrecked in Cephalonia, captured by Central Asian slave-traders (who priced him at only 2.50, much to his annoyance, and walked 600 miles through Afghanistan “in a state of nudity” according to the Dictionary of National Biography. He made a daring return to Afghanistan in search of the missing British agents, Stoddart and Connolly, and narrowly escaped death at the hands of their executioner. At other times Dr Wolff preached to the US Congress, was a deacon in New Jersey, an Anglican priest in Ireland, and finally became vicar of a parish in Somerset. As Flashman has remarked, there were some damned odd fellows in the earlies.

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