The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death Of A Rebel In 1857

An excerpt from Kim A. Wagner's new book

In his latest book, The Skull of Alum Bheg, historian Kim Wagner delves into the mutiny of 1857 and the shadows of colonial rule in India. Spurred by an intriguing find, Wagner, a lecturer at the Queen Mary University of London, weaves a narrative that explores the lives, and deaths, of soldiers, and rebels, in India under British rule.

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In 1963, the new owner of The Lord Clyde, a pub in the eastern English coastal town of Walmer in Kent, discovered a human skull stowed away under some disused crates and boxes in a small lumber room in the back of the building. The skull was missing its lower jaw, the few remaining teeth were loose, and it had the deep sepia hue of old age. Inserted in the eye-socket was a neatly folded slip of old paper, a handwritten note that briefly outlined the skull’s history:

‘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.’

In the exuberant handwriting typical of the late nineteenth century, the note purposefully seeks to breathe life into the inanimate skull. The sparse text conjures up the image of Alum Bheg, the alleged perpetrator of such horrible deeds, by describing his age, his height, his personality (‘ruffianly disposition’), and his appearance (not ‘ill looking’). Apart from his exotic name, the qualifying descriptor of his being a ‘native’ further emphasises his racial otherness. The text is in many ways closed and self-referential and the reader is presumed to already know and appreciate its context. There is, for instance, no indication as to why Alum Bheg would have murdered these people, apart from his innate ‘ruffianly’ character. Yet the allusions to the ‘Bengal Native Infantry’ and ‘mutiny’, would have rendered any such explanations superfluous within a British Victorian context.

As a ‘principal leader’ of the Indian Uprising of 1857, Alum Bheg is thus immediately identifiable as a deceitful conspirator, in the mould perhaps of well-known Indian rebels like Nana Sahib or the Rani of Jhansi. The description of the ambush and callous murders of innocent Europeans fleeing for their lives corresponds to the dramatic imagery associated with the event that the British referred to simply as the ‘Mutiny’. The allusion to the ‘brutal treatment’ of the women is respectably vague but nevertheless hints at a sexual attack, thus drawing upon one of the most potent tropes of the British colonial imagination. Within the British Empire, rebellion was synonymous with the subversion of racial hierarchies and the inevitable rape and murder of white woman by dark-skinned men. The details of Alum Bheg’s alleged crimes account for much of the brief note but are prefaced by the description of his execution and the brutal technique deployed: being blown from a cannon. The text describes the threat to British rule in India, but the skull itself testifies to the defeat of that threat. It thus establishes the skull as both a relic of Indian savagery and as a trophy of colonial retribution. The skull of Alum Bheg is the ultimate proof of colonial power.

The brief note accompanying the skull was the only clue to its origin, and nobody at the time knew how it ended up in The Lord Clyde to be discovered more than a century after Alum Bheg’s execution. The ‘nerve-shattering discovery’ was duly reported in the local press in 1963, including photographs of the new owners of the pub proudly posing with the grisly trophy. The skull was subsequently put on display at The Lord Clyde as a mascot, and when the owners died it was finally passed on to their relatives, who kept it hidden away in a cupboard.

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In 2014, as I was sitting in my office in Mile End in London, writing about colonial executions, I received an email from the couple who had come into possession of the skull. They did not feel comfortable with the ‘thing’ in their house, and yet did not know what to do with it. Having tried and failed to find anything out about Alum Bheg on the internet, they came upon my name as a historian with an interest in the Indian Uprising. My curiosity was obviously piqued, but I also did not really know what to make of the story. After further correspondence, we agreed that I would come and collect the skull in order to conduct further research, and, if possible, verify its provenance. It was clear from the outset that the skull belonged neither in their attic, nor in my office, and we agreed that the final aim of my research should be to prepare for Alum Bheg to be repatriated to India, if at all possible. And so it was that I found myself standing at a small train station in Essex, on a wet November day, with a human skull in my bag. Not just any skull, but one directly linked to a part of history that I write about and that I teach my students every year.

It should be no secret that I felt an immediate urge to recover something of the life-story of the man who once looked out through those eye-sockets and chewed with those teeth—the man who in so many ways inhabited the skull as ‘the palace of the soul’ (to use Byron’s words). Alum Bheg never imagined that,more than a century and a half after his death, the remains of his head would still be around, and furthermore be probed and prodded by perfect strangers thousands of miles from where he died. There is indeed a sense of intrusion in handling the skull of an individual who never consented to such an intimate touch, not to mention that Hamletesque realisation of one’s mortality, that someday this could be myself (it also doesn’t help that I am Danish).

To be the custodian, however temporarily, of the remains of another human being is a serious responsibility. I am keenly aware that I am only the latest in a long line of people who have held the skull of Alum Bheg and that it is for me to break the cycle of humiliation and ignominy that he has suffered. Both the manner of his execution, and the subsequent collecting of his head as a trophy, were acts of physical and symbolic violence intended to dehumanise Alum Bheg. In this book, I set out to restore some of the humanity and dignity that has been denied him by telling the story of his life and death during one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of British India. Very few people ever really knew that his skull existed: it was never exhibited in a museum, it is not described in the history books, and there are no descendants clamouring for its return. But returned he should be, and with this book I hope to have prepared the ground for Alum Bheg to finally find some peace, albeit 160 years late.

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‘And then I made a brusque movement, and one of the remaining posts of that vanished fence leaped up in the field of my glass. You remember I told you I had been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable in the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing— food for thought and also for the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids,—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.’

‘I had no idea of the conditions, he said: these heads were the heads of rebels. I shocked him excessively by laughing. Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear? There had been enemies, criminals, workers—and these were—rebels.Those rebellious heads looked very subdued to me on their sticks.’

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)

When today we encounter human skulls, it is usually within the context of a natural history museum or perhaps a medical collection, or even an ethnographic display. Such skulls rarely retain the name of the individual to whom they belonged, but are anonymised and referred to by a catalogue number, which renders them ethically more palatable. A skull in the doctor’s office might affectionately be referred to by a name, but it is really meant to represent humankind and supposed to show what a generic human cranium looks like. The anatomy students also do not need to know who the person they are dissecting was, nor how he, or she, died. Trying to determine racial categories in the past, the anthropometrist similarly did not care for individuality, but on the contrary sought to identify the broadest possible categories based on statistics of measurements. This sanitised presentation of skulls hides the sad and sordid past of the individuals whose remains ended up on the dissection table or in the display cabinet. The collection of human body parts indisputably entails some degree of violence, whether it was the posthumous dissection of the unclaimed corpses of criminals and the poor two centuries ago, the emptying of graves in faraway places a century ago, or the decapitation of a donated corpse today. And even when that violence is explicit in the exhibit, as is the case, for instance, of the tsantsas or shrunken heads displayed at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, neither the name of the individual, nor the exact circumstances under which they died, are considered significant.

A trophy-skull like that of Alum Bheg is different.Where a scientist’s collecting of a skull is not supposed to be about violence, that of a trophy-skull is irrevocably linked to a narrative of violence. The trophy in that sense becomes meaningful by highlighting the circumstances of its taking—as opposed to scientific museum specimens, whose presentation in glass cabinets deliberately obscures any trace of the human being and the circumstances of their death. Without a story, it ceases to be a trophy.While provenance is obviously important for all human remains, in order for them to be considered of value, in the case of a trophy, this is the only thing that really matters. On their own, both the skull and the note are meaningless, and would probably have been discarded. To use the words of one of my colleagues, Alum Bheg exists only as a ‘composition of actual bone and historical narrative’. The note is accordingly central to the ‘making’ of the skull of Alum Bheg, and, in that sense, this book is as much about the note as it is about the skull.

Taking the meagre information contained in the note—little more than 150 words in total—as my starting point, I have sought to sketch out a biography of the skull. My ambition was to uncover as much as possible of Alum Bheg’s journey, in life and in death, from trusted ally of the East India Company in the nineteenth century to forgotten war trophy in a pub in Kent a century later. The first things I had to do was to confirm that the skull itself matched the story. If, for instance, it turned out to be that of a 90-year-old woman, then that would have been the end of it—there would have been no book to write. Analysis of the skull carried out by Dr Heather Bonney of the Natural History Museum, London, suggested that the age was consistent with a mid-nineteenth century date, that it was definitely from a male who was probably in his mid-30s, and who was likely of Asian ancestry. There was no sign of violence, which one would not necessarily expect to find in the case of execution by cannon, where the cause of death is blast trauma to the torso. There were, furthermore, no signs of cut marks from a tool, which would indicate that the head was defleshed either by being boiled or simply by being left exposed to insects. While the examination did not provide as much certainty as I had perhaps hoped for, there was nothing about the skull that was incompatible with the story of its provenance and I decided to proceed with the research.

It did not take long to discover that the 46th Bengal Infantry Regiment—BNI for short—mutinied on 9 July 1857 at the military cantonment station of Sialkot in what is today Pakistan. 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. 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. The basic facts were thus easily confirmed, though that alone did not provide enough material on which to base a book.

My biggest challenge was that I never found Alum Bheg’s name in any of the original documents, reports, letters or memoirs from the period. I searched long and hard in archives and libraries, in the UK and in India, and even had friends and colleagues look for me. I scoured online newspaper databases without success and neither trial records and official reports of executions, nor regimental lists of recruits, have survived for this period. The only names of Indian soldiers serving in the 46th BNI at Sialkot in 1857 that have been kept for posterity, are those of three non-commissioned officers (NCOs) who remained loyal to the British, and Alum Bheg was evidently not one of them. The most that can be said on the basis of Alum Bheg’s name, properly transliterated as Alim Beg, is that he was probably a Sunni Muslim from northern India. The 46th BNI had originally been raised at Cawnpore, in what is today Uttar Pradesh, and it seems likely that Alum Bheg and most of the men of his regiment came from that particular region within the traditional recruitment area of the Bengal Army.

As I continued the research, I turned my attention to Captain Costello, described in the note as being present at the execution of Alum Bheg, and also the person who allegedly brought the skull back to Britain. Costello was easy to identify and although there was not an awful lot to go on, I was able to establish some sort of biographic outline.Arthur Robert George Costello was born in 1832 to a major landholding family in County Mayo, Ireland. Although the fortunes of the Costellos were on the wane, and the family plagued by numerous creditors, Arthur was able to purchase a commission as a cornet in the illustrious cavalry regiment, the 7th Dragoon Guards,in 1851. He had never seen action by the time he purchased his captaincy in June 1857 and later that year the 7th was deployed to India. By the time Costello landed in Karachi in January 1858, most of the actual fighting was already over, and the regiment was subsequently posted to Sialkot. Much as they had back in Britain, Costello and the 7th Dragoons spent most of their time with parades and drill exercises. By August 1858, Costello had apparently had enough and retired from his commission. He boarded the P&O steamer Ganges on 9 October 1858, and reached Southampton little more than a month later. The following summer, Costello formally left the 7th Dragoon Guards, but retained the informal title of ‘Captain’ for the rest of his life. He built a large house in the style of a Scottish manor at his ancestral seat of Edmondstown in 1864, but in doing so incurred serious debts. By the 1880s he was forced to sell most of his extensive landholdings to the tenants. Costello had married in 1862, but never had any children, and when he died in 1891, his gravestone stated that he was ‘last Dynast and Baron De Angulo’. None of the historical records relating to Costello makes mention of a skull in his possession, nor would he seem to have had any connection with The Lord Clyde in Walmer.

Excerpted from The Skull of Alum Bheg (Rs599, pp 320) by Kim A. Wagner with permission from Penguin Random House India. Available on Amazon.

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