The Skull of Alum Bheg

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This is a remarkable work of historical detection. A skull found in a pub in Kent in 1963. A handwritten note inserted in an eye socket: “Skull of Haviladar Alum Bheg 46th Bengal N Infantry who was blown away from a gun. He was a principal leader of the mutiny of 1857 and of a most ruffianly disposition.”

Kim Wagner, who had been writing and researching colonial executions, is alerted to its existence and “found myself standing at a small train station on a wet November day with a human skull in my bag.”

He traces the origins of this grisly trophy brought back by a Captain Costello, an officer on duty at Bheg’s execution, to Sialkot in northern India.

He creates a meticulously researched and well-documented account of the events leading up to Bheg’s execution in a gripping narrative that brings to life the human aspects of imperial domination. He is careful to portray the personalities on all sides of the conflict and this makes his account all the more convincing. Although we know the final brutal outcome we are drawn into the relationships and circumstances as if we were reading a fictional political crime thriller.

The historical background is critical to an understanding of the circumstances of the mutiny. The East India Company had seized control of India a century previously and relied on an army made up of overwhelmingly “Sepoy” Indian troops. A century later an empire of 200 million people was conquered by this native army of 200,000 men kept in check by 40,000 English troops. In classical imperialist fashion the indigenous economy was undermined and de-industrialised and the profits of this exploitation were managed by a highly privileged stratum of British officials. This was the Raj — arrogant, bullying, rapacious and racist.

No wonder the Indian troops mutinied. The ostensible reason was the insistence that they were forced to grease the cartridges of their guns with beef or pig fat against the religious beliefs of Hindu and Muslim alike. But underlying this immediate cause was the resentment at British colonial domination so brilliantly depicted in George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant. Such resentment lies at the root of all imperial adventures and creates in them an inherent instability.

The defeat of the mutiny was followed by thousands of exemplary executions and Alum Bheg suffered the most brutal: “Alum Bheg’s fetters were knocked off, his arms and legs were tied to the wheel of the gun, with the mouth of the barrel pressing against his chest.” He “was instantaneously shivered to atoms”. This public display of atrocity is characteristic of all imperial interventions as they seek to instil fear into the indigenous population. In India, Ireland, Vietnam and Iraq the same brutal logic is applied, but these shows of barbarous force are also a demonstration of weakness — a fear of resistance.

Wagner’s book is a welcome addition to our understanding of the modus operandi of imperialism and in its level of graphic detail leaves us in no doubt about its impact.