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In Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, a young adventurer named Daniel Dravot penetrates feudal Afghanistan disguised as a cleric. In this nonfiction account with a similar title, MacIntyre, a columnist for The Times of London, tells the story of the real life adventurer who may have been Kipling's inspiration. He describes the life and adventures of Josiah Harlan (1799-1871), a young Quaker from Chester County, Pennsylvania, who set sail for China in 1822, telling his fiancée that they would marry when he returned. Upon reaching Calcutta, Harlan received a letter announcing that she was marrying another man. He resolved never to return home.
So began his adventures. After a failed stint in the Indian army--an action for which the Quakers excommunicated him--Harlan met Shujah al-Mulk (1792-1842), an Afghan king exiled to India in 1809 after just six years on the throne. Harlan offered a deal: he would raise an army, subdue Kabul, and restore the kingdom. In exchange, he would become vizier, the equivalent of prime minister. The deal struck, Harlan began recruiting native troops, using the U.S. flag as his own. In 1827, he and his army began their long march. But he soon had second thoughts about his army's loyalty. He picked a trusted team, paid severance to the others, and launched his Plan B: dressed as a dervish, he made his way to Kabul, arriving in 1828 just as an epidemic of cholera ravaged the city. Years passed and Harlan changed his allegiance to Shujah's rival, King Dost Muhammad Khan (1793-1863), to whom he became aide-de-camp. This Afghan king granted Harlan's wish for power. The itinerant Pennsylvania Quaker and stilted lover became prince of Ghor, today a province in central Afghanistan.
Harlan's story is riveting. MacIntyre describes his adventures, disillusionments, and eventual return to the United States as the only Afghan general to serve in the U.S. Civil War.
Harlan was not alone in his adventures. In the nineteenth century, a handful of men made dangerous journeys through Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Tibet. Not all survived. Author Peter Hopkirk has chronicled their stories. But it is rare that so much new material surfaces in one book, and for this MacIntyre deserves special credit. After learning of this curious American from cursory references and footnotes in old travelogues gathering dust in the British Library, MacIntyre made it his mission to uncover the saga of this historical Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. His quest took him to Punjab and Pennsylvania, Kabul and California. He scoured through the official records of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore and poured over the intelligence archives of imperial India, whose agents were suspicious of Harlan's plots and schemes. Finally, in a Chester County museum, MacIntyre found a long-lost manuscript replete with love letters and sketches. Explanations of historical and cultural context weave together in his fluid prose. The result is impressive and well-worth reading.
1. See for example, Great Game (London: Murray, 1990); On Secret Service East of Constantinople (London: Murray, 1994); Trespassers on the Roof of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Middle East Quarterly