Vintage Reads #5 – The Man Who Would be King

ThePhantomRickshawFirst published in Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 collection The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Eerie Tales, this novella concerns a couple of British wide boys who intend to use blackmail, gunrunning and mummery to become kings of Kafiristan (an area of Afghanistan). It’s perhaps not an obvious example of the lost world genre but an important entry nonetheless as it tells of a fictional group of white people descended from the armies of Alexander the Great who established garrisons in Hindu Kush around 330 BC. This plays on a long held theory that the lighter skinned Kalash and Nuristani peoples who live in the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan are indeed such descendants. Threatened and occasionally forced to convert to Islam, the Kalash and Nuristanis practice a polytheistic religion and, much like the fictional tribes in the novella, erect idols in outdoor temples. kipling-man-kingThe story begins with an encounter on a train in India between a British journalist and the two adventurers; Dravot and Carnehan who tell him of their plan. Amused by the idea, although thinking it foolhardy, the narrator provides the men with maps and books on the area. They depart and two years go by in which the journalist nearly forgets all about them until Carnehan sneaks into the journalist’s office in Lahore, a broken man, but one willing to tell of his adventures. Sir_James_Brooke_(1847)_by_Francis_Grant The Man Who Would be King has a startling basis in fact. The British adventurer James Brooke was born in India (like Kipling) and saw some action in the army of the British East India Company before being wounded in 1825. After inheriting a considerable sum of money, he bought a large schooner and, arming it, set sail for Borneo with the idea of challenging Dutch control. There he found the province of Sarwak in upheaval, rife with piracy and insurgencies against the Sultan of Brunei. In 1841, Brooke helped the Sultan fight the troublemakers which he did with swift effectiveness. The Sultan was so impressed that the title ‘Rajah’ was bestowed on Brooke who became the ‘White Rajah’ of Sarwak, founding a dynasty famed for its eccentricities that lasted until the Second World War when it was ceded to the United Kingdom. Brooke’s achievements were met with fascination back in England and his adventures became the inspiration for many swashbuckling novels. Errol Flynn even penned a script based on his life with himself set to play Brooke but it never came to fruition.

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