CM Roundtable III: The Skull of Alum Bheg - Wagner

Posted by patwari on August 07, 2018 · 14 mins read

[We are excited to host this conversation on a very important book, Kim Wagner's The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857. The CM Roundtable is a series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. We thank each of our distinguished panelists for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion— for classroom or referential usage.]

Kim A. Wagner, The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857 (2017)


Introduction by Sepoy


Zoya Sameen

Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst

Sonia Qadir

Gaura Narayan


Author's response:

Kim Wagner


Author's Response: Kim Wagner

Kim A. Wagner is Senior Lecturer in British Imperial History, Queen Mary, University of London. He has written three previous books on Thuggees and on the 1857 Uprising.


Alum Bheg's skull, and the note that was found along with it in a pub in Kent in 1963, fell into my lap, almost literally, and I knew from the outset that I had to do something with this story. I ended up writing the book during a few hectic months and with three key aims in mind:

Firstly, Alum Bheg was executed, and his skull turned into a trophy, with the deliberate intention of preventing funeral rites and denying him his humanity. It was accordingly clear to me right from the outset that Alum Bheg had to be repatriated and buried to effectively put an end to the enduring legacies of this particular act of colonial violence. There are, however, very few precedents for the return of human remains to India and no straightforward process through which to do so. The best way I could achieve this, I felt, was to advertise the existence of his skull by telling his story in a compelling manner.

Secondly, I was curious to see what a history of the Indian Uprising might look like when written from the perspective of an ordinary sepoy and when told through an object such as Alum Bheg's skull. There was a real challenge in trying to flesh out the circumstances of Alum Bheg's life, death, and afterlife, and moreover to do so with such scant evidence. It is not as if the world is calling out for yet more scholarship on 1857 and the project was only going to be worthwhile if the change in the scale of observation, to paraphrase Giovanni Levi, offered the potential for genuinely new insights.

Thirdly, the story of Alum Bheg is also the story of the inherently racialised nature of colonial violence, which turned the bodies of enemies into objects upon which colonial power could be inscribed — or which could simply be destroyed for moral effect. Crucially, the dehumanization of indigenous people further entailed their bodies being perceived as natural specimens and thus collected for (putative) scientific purposes, or, as was the case with Alum Bheg's skull, taken as trophies or souvenirs.

These three key concerns also meant that, for me at least, this was never just an intellectual exercise and never just another book about 1857. I think the reviews bear this out. I would like to thank Manan Ahmed Asif and Salman Adil Hussain for organising this Chapati Mystery roundtable, and I am grateful to each of the reviewers, Gaura Narayan, Zoya Sameen, Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst, and Sonia Qadir, for taking the time to write such thoughtful responses. It is always a pleasure when readers 'get' what a book is trying to accomplish. It is, however, a real privilege when readers recognise and elucidate aspects of one's argument — and do it more lucidly than the book itself. In particular, I found Morgenstein Fuerst' comments concerning the significance of different spacial contexts compelling, and Qadir's invocation of the work of Michael Taussig, and the correlation between rumour and terror, cuts to the very essence of the book (as I imagined it). In the following I can only touch on a few of the many great points raised in the reviews.

All the reviewers make reference of the central conceit of the book, namely that it was written entirely from the information provided by the note, since I never found Alum Bheg in the archives. While writing the book I was very tempted to give Alum Bheg more substance, and to write him as a fully-rounded character. In the end I decided against this, both because I wanted to avoid indulging in the kind of colonial ventriloquism we know from works such as From Sepoy to Subedar, but also because I felt deeply uncomfortable by attributing words to the skull that I knew Alum Bheg had never uttered. The end result was perhaps a 'thinner' portrayal of the man Alum Bheg, but one that I can stand by without qualms.

Narayan is not the first reviewer to find the final section of the book, which discusses the collecting of human remains more generally, to be superfluous — Narayan, with some justification, suggests that this conclusion 'dissipates the impact' of Alum Bheg's execution and Captain Costello's taking of the skull. By contrast, Morgenstein Fuerst finds this final section more engaging, while she finds the earlier narrative of the uprising itself to be 'less interesting'. There is definitely a shift towards the end, after Alum Bheg has been executed, and that is when I had to try and explain why Costello would collect a head, turn it into a skull, bring it back home only to abandon it at some later point. If I had stopped simply be describing Costello's acquisition of the skull, I would have left the most fundamental question unanswered: namely, what his reasoning might have been. As I had nothing to go on specifically pertaining to Costello, I had to try and reconstruct the context in which a British officer in the mid-nineteenth century might feel compelled to collect a blood-dripping head and bring it back home. My answer could never be more than a tentative one, but it invariably turned the analysis into something far broader and (hopefully) also relevant beyond the context of 1857. What is perhaps most significant about the skull of Alum Bheg is, as Morgenstein Fuerst also notes, just how 'ordinary' it was. If I had ended the book sooner, I might perhaps have crafted a tighter narrative, yet it would essentially have remained little more than a curious anecdote. It is, however, precisely the ubiquity of head-hunting within the British Empire, and other imperial formations as well, that needs to be emphasized and acknowledged. Unfortunately, Alum Bheg and the fate that befell him and his skull was far from unique.

Qadir makes excellent observations concerning the rule of law, or rather its pretence, in enabling racialised violence, yet my deliberate avoidance of any overtly theoretical arguments in the book made me neglect making much of this. I am also a bit wary of overemphasising the role of law and legal structures when trying to understand the forms and functions of colonial violence. Schmitt and Agamben are compelling to think with, but they lend themselves to glib abstractions in the process of which the messy details and ugly reality of legal practices and colonial violence all too easily gets lost. In his important analysis of the role of martial law in connection with the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, for instance, the late Nasser Hussain missed the crucial point that the shooting at Jallianwala Bagh took place outside any formal legal structure whatsoever — martial law had not actually been declared on 13 April, nor was there a state of de facto martial law. Large-scale colonial violence, which combined the features of a formal execution with a military massacre, was in this instance predicated on a deliberately vague conception of military and civil authority rather than a formal suspension of the law. This is crucially different from the cases explored by scholars such as Mark Condos and Elisabeth Kolsky, who have demonstrated how colonial violence was facilitated and legitimated through legal structures. I could, in hindsight, have made more of this in the context of the Indian Uprising.

Towards the end of her review, Sameen takes issue with my refusal to take an explicit moral stand in the book and offer a critique of the Empire. As she notes, however, it is impossible to read about the violent suppression of the Uprising, or the treatment of non-white bodies, as anything other than other than a denunciation of the civilizing mission so-called. This is an important point and one that I continue to grapple with in my work, but for now I will say two things: Work in the vein of Shashi Tharoor's Inglorious Empire, which is nothing but a critique of Empire, reveal all the problems of writing simply to denounce, not least because it fails to offer anything resembling a meaningful historical analysis. Secondly, I see no reason to critique the past, which, as I suggest in the book, is as meaningful as yelling at the TV. What I try to do, is to offer a riposte to those who would seek to rehabilitate the Empire and portray it as a benevolent force for good. By exposing the violence and brutality of the past, I thus seek to expose the hypocrisy of Empire-nostalgia in the present. To me, it is the hypocrisy of Western imperialism that is particularly galling, and which needs to be addressed.

Qadir, in her review, also draws out the contemporary relevance of some of the issues raised, especially in terms of the construction of extraordinary threats to justify extreme countermeasures, as we have become so accustomed to after 9/11. I think she puts it better than I could have, but her comments speak to a similar issue as that of my moral stance (or lack thereof). Anyone working on colonial violence, lawfare, fear and related subjects such as 'yellow peril' panics, in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries are, I dare say, constantly reminded of the horrific familiarity of it all. Precisely because of the inescapable presentism of what we study, I personally believe that it is more effective to leave these indisputable continuities and parallels implicit rather than explicit. That also goes for the moral denunciation: I would rather have readers make those links themselves, than position my scholarship in an overtly political way. Others may disagree of course, and as we seem to be steadily descending into a new global (dis)order, I may very well have to rethink that strategy. At a time when Bruce Gilley's denialism can gain traction, subtle and sophisticated may no longer be a viable response.

As I write these words, the fate of Alum Bheg's skull remains undecided, yet negotiations between British and Indian institutions concerning repatriation are currently under way and I am hopeful that the final chapter of his story will soon be completed. Sameen suggests that it would be just as well if the skull remained in the UK where it would serve as a reminder of colonial violence, which is often deliberately purged from museums, and as a potent antidote to Empire-nostalgia and -amnesia. For the skull to end up in a display-case, however, would constitute a continuation of the collecting- and display-practices of Victorian England which, as far as I am concerned, no amount of contextualisation could ameliorate. What eventually happens to the skull will not be for me to decide, yet as long as the skull is my responsibility, I will do what I can to restore some of the humanity which Alum Bheg was historically denied.

By way of conclusion, I would like to thank once more the organizers and reviewers for their generous and critical engagement with The Skull of Alum Bheg.