HARLAN, JOSIAH (1799-1871), adventurer and medical practitioner who served the British, the Sikhs and the Afghāns, was born in Philadelphia, U.S.A., in 1799. At the age of 24, he arrived at Calcutta and was employed as an assistant surgeon by the East India Company and attached to the British army then operating in Burma (1824) . After the war, Harlan proceeded towards the Punjab to try his luck there. At Ludhiāṇā, he met Shāh Shujā, the deposed king of Kābul, then a pensionary of the English, who engaged him as his secret agent and despatched him to Kābul to stir up a revolt in Afghanistan. He did not meet with much success in Kābul and came to Lahore to take up service under Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh on an oath of fealty in the name of Christ. He also promised, in writing, to serve the Mahārājā honestly all his life and fight against his enemies. He also volunteered to keep supplying news about the British as well as about the Afghāns. Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh appointed him governor, on a salary of Rs 1, 000 per month, of the provinces of Jasroṭā and Nūrpur, two districts then newly annexed to Lahore. In 1832, he became governor of Gujrāt.
In 1835, during the Peshāwar campaign, Harlan and Faqīr 'Azīz ud-Dīn were Sikh envoys sent to Dost Muhammad's camp for negotiations, a duty they performed at great personal risk. Dost Muhammad had both of them interned with the intention of bargaining for Peshāwar. But their lives were saved by Sultān Muhammad Khān, Dost Muhammad's disgruntled brother.
Harlan, however, could not retain Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh's favour for long. According to Sohan Lāl Sūrī, the court historian, Harlan was summoned to attend on Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh when he had an attack of paralysis of the tongue. Harlan, it is said, mentioned a fee of a lakh of rupees which was readily agreed to, but when Harlan insisted on money being paid beforehand, the Mahārājā was beside himself with rage and gave orders that he be stripped and put across the Sutlej, which was done.
In order "to avenge myself and cause him [Raṇjīt Siṅgh] to tremble in the midst of his magnificence, " Harlan entered, towards the end of 1836, the service of Dost Muhammad who gave him command of his regular troops. It is said that it was at Harlan's instigation that Dost Muhammad had declared war against Raṇjīt Siṅgh culminating in the battle of Jamrūd in April 1837. Although the celebrated General Harī Siṅgh Nalvā was killed in this battle, the Afghāns had to retreat without any gain.
In 1839, when the army of the Indus approached Kābul, Harlan was deputed to negotiate with the mission headed by Sir Alexander Burnes. As the British forces reached Kābul, Dost Muhammad fled to the mountaīns, and Harlan quickly shifted over to the British. Thereafter, he left Afghanistan for India from where he proceeded to Philadelphia.
Back home, Harlan settled down to a quiet life. He published an account of his adventures, A Memoir of India and Afghanistan. He died in San Francisco in October 1871.