Kings (and Queens) Of Their Own Domains
August 13, 2008 3:53 PM   Subscribe

Josiah Harlan, first American in Afghanistan, Commander-In-Chief of the Afghan Army, Quaker, and Prince of Ghor; the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's short story "The Man Who Would Be King" (and thus the John Houston film). The title was gained for himself "and his descendants in perpetuity" and never rescinded, making actor Scott Reiniger (Dawn of the Dead), Harlan's great, great, great grandson, technically a prince of Afghanistan. (previously)
Ursula Graham-Bower, an English archeology student who ventured to India in 1939 "to putter about with a few cameras and do a bit of medical work, maybe write a book" and ended up in the jungle on the Burmese border as "Queen of the Nagas", leading headhunting tribes against the advancing Japanese Army. (Real Audio BBC Radio history segment, extended MP4 video interview from 1985, shortly before her death, online archive).
The "White Rajas" of the Kingdom of Sarawak, a dynasty of the Brooke family, who ruled a region of Brunei for over a century; the progenitor of the family, James Brooke, was likely an inspiration for Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim".

The rule of these "Kings and Queens" was not without controversy, often being characterised by paternalism and attitudes of racial and cultural superiority. However, it is also true that they were fascinated by, and in some cases deeply admired, the culture and history of their subjects, and attempted to shield them from the corruptive influence of colonialism. Josiah Harlan, in particular, appeared prescient in foreseeing the effects of the British invasion of Afghanistan, a move in the Great Game which removed him from power and forced his return to America, and had disastrous results. "To subdue and crush the masses of a nation by military force," he wrote, "is to attempt the imprisonment of a whole people: all such projects must be temporary and transient, and terminate in a catastrophe.".
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul (18 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Someone doesn't like The Culture, do they?
posted by ZaneJ. at 3:58 PM on August 13, 2008

My grandfather was tramping about in Afghanistan some time in the 20's and came across a nomadic tribe. The leader welcomed him warmly, gave him a feast, and proposed a competition of some kind of feat or other. Horsemanship, if I remember correctly. Anyhow, my grandfather won and was awarded three horses and a title in the tribe. Since he had no plans to stay, he asked the tribe's finest warrior to enjoy the horses until he (my grandfather) returned to get them, which of course he had no intentions of doing. Reading his account of the whole thing in his memoirs, I understood that the whole thing couldn't have been more scripted if Busby Berkeley had been in charge.

I've often wondered if these kings and queens simply didn't get the memo my grandfather got. They're like houseguests who, when told "my home is your home," move in and eat all the food.
posted by lekvar at 4:28 PM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Ah, now I know where Neal Stephenson got the inspiration for Kinakuta in Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:38 PM on August 13, 2008

They're like houseguests who, when told "my home is your home," move in and eat all the food.

I can definitely appreciate that. I've witnessed it firsthand, the sorts of people who don't understand that the counterbalance to hospitality is discretion and deference.

At the same time, it is heartening when someone encounters a culture unlike their own and instead of either running in terror or attempting to "civilize", they listen, learn, and assimilate. Even more encouraging is when even those acting on behalf of colonial powers still try to act with the best interests of the locals in mind.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:46 PM on August 13, 2008

I will soon be the King of China. Now this is judging solely by the prowess of their Kung Fu fighting skills as submitted to YouTube by their supposed "top contenders." Who appear to all be like seventy five years old and don't appear to actually be able to hit anybody. Well. At least anybody over 110lbs. The rest appear to be bald dudes busy walking on spikes, punching themselves in the nuts, and hitting themselves over the heads with iron bars. I have yet to see a gun in the place. So. I can see there will be little resistance.

I'm surprised nobody else thought of it.

Oh. Wait a minute. Checking Wikipedia. Ohhhhh. There's 3 billion of them? And they have tanks.

Never mind.
posted by tkchrist at 5:03 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can anybody remember the name of the Kurtz-like Scottish (?) general who led a Sikh army in Raj times? He sounded like one of the assimilated leaders, "going native" with local dress, a harem of wives, learning the language etc, and was apparently given near godlike status by his men, not unlike Alexander.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:13 PM on August 13, 2008

White people, having fun!
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 5:25 PM on August 13, 2008

I live in Sarawak. The Brookes are remembered in various ways, but the most common sentiment I've encountered, at least among the Malays, is that Ol' James was a common pirate, and that the title of Rajah was extracted under duress from Rajah Mudah Hassim, not freely given in gratitude for services rendered as the Brookes would have it. (I once asked a friend if there were any Brookes left in Sarawak. He said, yeah, there were plenty of beruks left, but they all hide in the jungle.) The linked site's brief description of his rule as benevolent autocracy is not unreasonable, but doesn't take into account numerous uprisings by Chinese, Malays and especially Dayaks, led by the Iban warrior Rentap. My point isn't to make more of the fighting than it was, but simply to point out that the story in Sarawak is not so simple as a white man showing up on a boat and the natives rushing to put a crown on his head.
posted by BinGregory at 8:02 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had the opportunity to translate a folk history of Datuk Hakim Keramat, an important religious figure in Brooke-era Sarawak, that illustrates the tension between Brooke and his Malay subjects, or, perhaps, the memory of the Brookes and the descendants of their subjects. Please excuse the self-link.
posted by BinGregory at 8:22 PM on August 13, 2008

(A beruk is more properly the Pig-Tailed Macaque.)
posted by BinGregory at 8:29 PM on August 13, 2008

Sylvia Brett; Queen of the Headhunters, was the last Ranee of Sarawak.
posted by adamvasco at 3:53 AM on August 14, 2008

Can anybody remember the name of the Kurtz-like Scottish (?) general who led a Sikh army in Raj times? He sounded like one of the assimilated leaders, "going native" with local dress, a harem of wives, learning the language etc, and was apparently given near godlike status by his men, not unlike Alexander.

Maybe you are thinking of Sir William Macnaghten was head of the Foreign and Political Department in the Government of India during the early 19th century? Or maybe his rival Alexander Burnes?

The British Empire produced scores of men like this. (The inability of any self-respecting Frenchman to "go native" was what limited France's imperialist ambitions. )

Outstanding post Bora Horza Gobuchul.
posted by three blind mice at 4:20 AM on August 14, 2008

Hm, no, maybe the guy I was thinking of was a bit further down the food chain. Might have actually been a mere Captain or Colonel...? I don't have the book on me, annoyingly.

Scott of Burma is another example to add to the list, though.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:39 AM on August 14, 2008

Ubu: You're probably thinking of Alexander Gardner.
posted by zamboni at 8:42 AM on August 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Halloween Jack at 9:02 AM on August 14, 2008

I grew up partly in Kuching, Malaysia, and remember hearing about Brooke and the White Rajahs all the time, though I was not politically aware enough at my young age to begin understanding or pondering out the significance/consequences of colonialism in the place I was living. I do remember one story, probably apocryphal, involving Mr. Brooke, going a little something like this: While touring his new lands, Brooke noticed a city in the distance, and pointed to it, asking what it was called. His guide thought he was pointing to a nearby cat, and responded 'Kuching,' the Bahasa word for cat. And every since then the city was known as Kuching.

yeah, that story is probably not true at all, but has persisted in my memory.
posted by jrb223 at 11:12 AM on August 14, 2008

Zamboni: that's the man, thanks. *adds more books to to-read list*
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:58 PM on August 14, 2008

Runciman did a fun book on The White Rajahs
posted by IndigoJones at 6:20 PM on August 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

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