The British Empire Library

The Skull of Alum Bheg

by Kim Wagner

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The author had an extraordinary piece of luck a few years ago when he was emailed by a couple who wished to dispose of a skull they had inherited from a former landlord of The Lord Clyde in Walmer. The skull had been discovered in a lumber room at the pub in 1963, missing its lower jaw and most of its teeth. It was not anonymous however, because inserted in the eye socket was a scrap of paper relating that it was the skull of Havildar Alum Bheg, of the 46th Bengal Native Infantry, 'a ruffianly rebel' who had been blown from the mouth of a cannon after the Indian Mutiny. Dr Wagner, a colonial historian teaching in London had been contacted because the skull's owners did not feel comfortable with it, yet did not know how to dispose of it. To his credit, Wagner not only took ownership of the relic but quickly turned it into a cracking good story - a story of a little-known episode of the Mutiny, of how it affected the new cantonment of Sealkot in the Punjab, of the ambivalence of the rebels themselves and of colonial violence in general, both Indian and British.

Many previously unconsidered themes are explored here, in particular the fact that soldiers of the 46th regiment stationed in the Punjab, were as much foreigners there as the British themselves. The majority came from Awadh, a thousand miles away, unable to speak the local language, different in looks, customs and behaviour from the local Punjabis and with the dream of retiring 'home' at the end of a lifetime's service in what was to them a foreign country. Although so far from their native villages, they were not unaware of the turmoil at Barrackpore, Meerut, and Delhi and although only a small number of Britons were killed at Sealkot, their murderers were vigorously hunted down and punished. Using original material including letters from British civilians and American missionaries, the story is deftly told and the 'greased cartridges' given a thorough examination. (Sepoys were not in fact forced to use the unclean cartridges, but it was the fear of losing caste and being polluted that was the more powerful element.) The practice of taking human trophies, like skulls, by Victorian soldiers is considered, although with a little too much extraneous material. There are signs of over-hasty publication too, with a number of errors, including the separation of the captions from the illustrations, but it is nevertheless a lively and provocative book. Recommended.

British Empire Book
Kim Wagner
First Published
Hurst & Co.
Review Originally Published
Spring 2018 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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