How a Quaker from America gained fame and fortune in Ranjit Singh’s court (and was then banished)

Josiah Harlan’s thirst for power and fortune led to his rise through Ranjit Singh’s court but also his eventual banishme...

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...

...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...

...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”...in 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.

Add a Comment