UK historian wants to return 1857 uprising skull to Kanpur
Research revealed that Alum Bheg - one of many unknown soldiers who died during the 1857 uprising and its aftermath - was blasted with a cannon in Sialkot, now in Pakistan.world Updated: Mar 01, 2018 19:38 IST
A London-based historian who was sent a skull out of the blue in 2014 and put together the fascinating story of Alum Bheg, a soldier blown to pieces by the British during the 1857 uprising, is keen to send it back to India for a respectful burial.
Kim A Wagner, a senior lecturer in British imperial history at Queen Mary, University of London, was given the skull by the family that took over the Kent pub, The Lord Clyde. It had been at the pub for a long time with a 170-word note that identified it as that of Alum Bheg, a havildar of the Bengal Native Infantry.
Wagner’s research revealed that Bheg - one of many unknown soldiers who died during the 1857 uprising and its aftermath - was blasted with a cannon in Sialkot, when the unit was stationed there. Most soldiers of the unit were recruited from Cawnpore, the erstwhile name for Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh.
Bheg’s skull was taken away as a trophy by one Captain Costello. Wagner’s research tracing the skull’s journey was published in November 2017 in the book The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857.
Wagner said: “My main aim with writing the book was to tell the world about the existence of Alum Bheg because nobody knows about him and also ultimately to repatriate him to India. But that is quite a long and elaborate legal process. The book is an invitation to Indian authorities.
“He died in Sialkot in today’s Pakistan, but he is most probably from Kanpur. In any case, there is not much interest in the 1857 uprising in Pakistan. He was a Muslim and probably doesn’t fit the Indian narrative, identified more with Mangal Pandey, but I am keen for it not to be politicised.”
The Lord Clyde pub, where the skull was found, is named after Colin Campbell, later the first Lord Clyde, a British general who played a leading role in suppressing the 1857 uprising. He was also involved in the Second Anglo Sikh War of 1848-49.
Wagner said he would like Bheg to be “finally put to rest in a respectful manner after he's been kept in various boxes and attics for more than a century”.
His research included a skull analysis at the Natural History Museum in London, which suggested the age was consistent with a mid-19th century date, and that it was definitely from a male who was probably in his mid-30s and was likely of Asian ancestry.
Bheg was likely involved in the killing of British individuals based in Sialkot, as the note accompanying the skull suggests. His 46th Bengal Infantry Regiment had revolted on July 9, 1857 at Sialkot’s military cantonment.
“Despite the considerable historiography devoted to the Indian uprising, the outbreak at Sialkot has not attracted any real attention, from either British or Indian scholars, and is only mentioned in the most cursory fashion, if at all,” Wagner said.
“To the extent that the outbreak at Sialkot is described, it is usually in reference to the Europeans who were killed, which included Dr Graham and Thomas and Jane Hunter and their child - the very victims described in the note.”
Text of the note with the skull, written in a style described by Wagner as “exuberant handwriting typical of the late 19th century”:
“Skull of Havildar ‘Alum Bheg’, 46th Regt. Bengal N. 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. He took possession (at the head of a small party) of the road leading to the fort, to which place all the Europeans were hurrying for safety. His party surprised and killed Dr Graham shooting him in his buggy by the side of his daughter. His next victim was the Rev Mr Hunter, a missionary, who was flying with his wife and daughters in the same direction. He murdered Mr Hunter, and his wife and daughters after being brutally treated were butchered by the road side.
“Alum Bheg was about 32 years of age; 5 feet 7 ½ inches high and by no means an ill looking native.
“The skull was brought home by Captain (AR) Costello (late Capt 7th Drag. Guards), who was on duty when Alum Bheg was executed.”