In 1801, the young scion of a petty fiefdom in the Punjab was invested with the title of Maharaja of Punjab. The young man, whose name was Ranjit Singh went on to carve out a kingdom for himself that stretched from the borders of Afghanistan in the west to the boundaries of the British Raj in the east. It included the lush hills and valleys of Kashmir, the barren mountains of Ladakh and the fertile plains of his native Punjab. The British valued him as an ally who would keep their western frontier safe and while they coveted his kingdom, they did not dare to engage in military adventures in Punjab during his lifetime.
The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia is an examination of Ranjit Singh and his times that focuses on a wide array of colourful characters that populated his court. Some of them are foreigners or firangis, such as Josiah Harlan, a Quaker from Philadelphia (the camel merchant of the title), who entered Ranjit Singh’s service and rose to become a trusted administrator, only to fall out of favour and defect to the Afghans. Other firangis include Jean Baptiste Ventura and Jean Francois Allard, French officers who went on to form and command Ranjit Singh’s famed French legions and rose to the highest ranks of the empire’s armies.
The Punjabi characters whose stories are told are no less colourful. Akali Phoola Singh, the tempestuous leader of the militant Sikhs who handed Ranjit Singh some of his most notable victories, while never fully submitting to his authority is one of them. The teenaged Muslim courtesan, Bibi Moran, who went on to become the love of Ranjit Singh’s life is another.
Ranjit Singh’s complex relationship with his mother-in-law, Mata Sada Kaur, arguably the chief architect of his ascension to the throne is examined as is the rise of the Dogra brothers, who entered his service as humble soldiers and went on to scale unimaginable heights of power and glory in his court.
All these stories combine to present a nuanced and complex image of Maharaja Ranjit Singh through his interactions with these characters. The work humanises Maharaja Ranjit Singh and presents him as the brilliant man he clearly was, without attempting to gloss over his flaws and foibles.