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Review: The Skull of Alum Bheg by Kim A Wagner

The British empire was not a benign force for good. Instead, as The Skull of Alum Bheg shows, the colonisers often resorted to great savagery to establish their supremacy

books Updated: Jun 01, 2018 17:48 IST
Kushalrani Gulab
Kushalrani Gulab
Hindustan Times
Coloured engraving of a sepoy (1858).
Coloured engraving of a sepoy (1858).(UIG via Getty Images)
320pp, Rs 599; Penguin

After I flipped through the book I was to review just to get a feel of what I’d be reading when I actually began it, I had to email my editor to ask for an extension of my deadline. “The print is minuscule,” I wrote. “May I please have three weeks for this book instead of two?”

Then I polished my spectacles, switched on the lights even though sunlight still streamed through the window, arranged myself so the book caught the maximum illumination possible, and began reading. The next thing I knew, it was way past the middle of the night and I had just three chapters and the epilogue left out of a total of 11 chapters, introduction and epilogue. Clearly, small print and poor eyesight have zero power in the face of an absorbing book.

The book in question is The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857 by historian Kim A Wagner. I found the story behind the story utterly fascinating. Wagner, who teaches the history of the British empire and colonial India with a focus on the 1857 sepoy mutiny or uprising (depending on whether you see it from the British perspective or the Indian respectively), at Queen Mary College at the University of London, had been approached by a couple who had just bought a pub in south-east England. They had found a skull on the property, they told him. A skull containing the following note: ‘Skull of Havildar “Alum Bheg,” 46th Regt. Bengal N. [native] Infantry, who was blown away from a gun, amongst several others of his Regt. He was a principal leader in the mutiny of 1857 & of a most ruffianly disposition. […] The skull was brought home by Captain (AR) Costello (late Capt. 7th Drag. Guards), who was on duty when Alum Bheg was executed.’

The new pub owners were uncomfortable with the skull, so could Wagner take it, they asked. He did, and promptly began investigating the story behind the head.

Though Wagner could not find much about Alum Bheg other than the fact that he’d been deployed with his regiment at Sialkot, Punjab, now in Pakistan, he took the opportunity to explore not only a little-known episode in the 1857 sepoy uprising against their British employers, but also the real reasons behind it, beyond the well-known tale of the issue of bullets greased with beef and pork fat, which, if used by Hindus and Muslims, would excommunicate them from their communities.

Author Kim A Wagner (Courtesy Penguin)

The bullets were just the trigger for the uprising (please excuse this insanely mixed metaphor; I could not resist it). Behind the fear of the bullets were years of ever-growing belief that the white sahibs were out to eliminate every vestige of local culture from India, from religions other than Christianity to social practises such as sati and lack of education for women.

I loved the way the book was written, telling the story of why the uprising took place along with how events played out in Sialkot, from both the Indian and the British perspectives. Reading the book was like reading reportage and editorial in a single newspaper article, giving me what I felt was a complete picture.

This was why I zipped through most of the book in less than a day, but the last three chapters were a problem: I couldn’t read more than two or three pages at a stretch. Not because I suddenly went blind, or the book became less absorbing, but because the last three chapters focused on a topic that has not been explicated enough in books of popular history: colonial violence.

I had wondered every now and then while reading the book, whether Alum Bheg and his skull had been lost in the clash between the Indians and the British of 1857. But the late dismembered sepoy returned front and centre in the chapters about British reprisals. Colonial ideas of revenge and rule, I found, were so bloody that I couldn’t read much at a time for fear of being physically sick.

Read more: UK historian wants to return 1857 uprising skull to Kanpur

In the last chapter, with its concentration on the colonial collection of human trophies such as Alum Bheg’s skull, Wagner spares no opportunity to point out how the civilised British, bent on civilising the dark-skinned savages that it was their duty to bring into the modern world, were just as bad if not worse than the savages themselves. Not just in India, but all over the British Empire. (What they did in South Africa will remain stuck in my head forever; I had nightmares the day I read that page, and still get them a week later.)

This was not unnoticed even among the British themselves: the irony of colonialism was clear to many, and far sooner than we post-colonials believe. But this dehumanisation of the ruled is why, book finally published, Wagner still has a mission to accomplish: returning what remains of Alum Bheg to the land of his birth, and thus returning to the man himself the respect as a human being that his colonial overlords took from him.

Kushalrani Gulab is an independent journalist.