The skull is an intriguing entry point, and it manages to underpin the entire narrative of Kim A Wagner’s new book The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of Rebel of 1857. From this grisly starting point, Wagner narrates how, in the summer heat of mid-1857, native Bengal Army units at Sialkot mutinied, killing officers and civilians and looting the cantonment, and then set out for Delhi to join Bahadur Shah, the briefly-minted ‘Emperor of India’.
They didn’t make it. John Nicholson intercepted them with a British force as they tried to cross the Ravi river. Three days later, Nicholson annihilated the 1,100 trapped sepoys in the Battle of Trimmu Ghat. All but wiped out by ‘Nikal Seyn’ Nicholson’s moving column, the survivors fled into the Himalayas.
A year later they were dragged back to Sialkot and blown up from the mouth of a cannon; Havildar Alum Bheg among them. His head was picked up, ‘defleshed’, and brought home to Dublin by a captain of the 7th Dragoon Guards—the ultimate proof—as Wagner deems it, ‘of colonial power’.
In 1963, the skull was discovered in a store room of The Lord Clyde pub. The owners of the pub learnt from a note left in an eye socket that it belonged to Alum Bheg, who played a leading role in the mutiny in Sialkot. Wagner received an email in 2014 from the owners, and the story begins.But this book is not only about Alum Bheg. It is also about the experience of ordinary people from different parts of the world whose lives were drastically changed or cut short by the events of 1857 and soon after. It is more of a reconstruction of history rather than a biography of Alum Bheg.
And Wagner makes it believable; his depiction of life and death on the ground is helped by the depth of research and thickly footnoted academic rigor as it is by his evident passion for history and flair for language. It is a collective study of Indian sepoys and their common characteristics and their role in the events of 1857.
Wagner 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 thriller. There are no heroes in this book, only victims.
The book brings together the story of thousands of Indian soldiers in British service whose names have been lost to history and whose existence was recorded only as a number when they deserted, were executed, or killed on the battlefield. The violence that produced Alum Bheg’s skull and its collection as a war trophy too finds continuing mention through the book. The brutality of British repression is not glossed over either. It never could be explained away in the decades after 1857; neither could the skull, and so it was hidden.
Wagner’s book is an exception to such history that has almost always been told from the British point of view. A lecturer in British imperial history at Queen Mary College in London, he however still seems to be on the fence with regards to the nomenclature: is it a mutiny, a rebellion or the first war of independence.
Nevertheless, as he notes in the introduction, his book is unlikely to appeal to many as neither does it indulge in Raj nostalgia nor does it subscribe to Indian nationalist mythology. In all, it is a valiant effort by Wagner and must be recognised as such.In itself, it makes for a compelling read and is likely to become a key resource for students of Indian colonial history.