CM Roundtable III: The Skull of Alum Bheg — Morgenstein Fuerst

Posted by patwari on August 07, 2018 · 19 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


Discussion by Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst (University of Vermont)

Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst is assistant professor of religion and director of the Middle East Studies program at the University of Vermont. Her research centers on Islam and Muslims in South Asia as well as theories of religion, race, and imperialism. Her first book, Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad was published by I.B. Tauris in October 2017. At UVM, Morgenstein Fuerst teaches courses about theory and method in the study of religion, Islamic practice and history, and, occasionally, Hindu traditions.


Kim A. Wagner's The Skull of Alum Bheg: the Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857 is a gripping narrative of one of the most written about historical events in British and Indian history. In it, Wagner offers a glimpse of the 1857 Rebellion as told through the journey of the skull of an executed sepoy, Alum Bheg. This material micro-history offers quite a lot to readers and, moreover, adds to a growing body of literature that helps us think about memorialization and memory.

A question we ought to ask from the outset is: why another book about 1857? As the author of one of these very many books, I ask this question not as a snarky, veiled criticism but instead, as one that gets at something bigger than the Rebellion itself. Why are scholars—American, British, Indian—so invested in thinking, rethinking, and writing about the Rebellion? What might this plethora of literature tell us taken as a collective? For me, the Rebellion exemplifies complicated 19th century events that have produced ongoing effects. Whether stated or not, scholars—and their audiences—find new ways to wrestle with these major, violent events precisely because they continue to serve a purpose. The Rebellion maintains a dominant space in British and Indian history, in global affairs, in published material because we have yet to stop remembering it and memorializing it in ways that serves contemporary purposes and ideologies.

Wagner references this in his introduction where he sharply tells his reader that The Skull of Alum Bheg “will not appeal to everyone, and for those who prefer their Raj Nostalgia or Indian nationalist mythology unchallenged, there are literally hundreds of books that will provide reassuring and politically edifying narratives.” (9) The two extremes Wagner gestures toward are those, on the one hand, who want to read the 1857 Rebellion in terms of the grandeur of British Raj specifically or British global domination broadly and, on the other, those who see the Rebellion as the first major anti-colonial struggle on the clear path to sovereignty for (as many argue, a Hindu) independent India. Raj Nostalgia is intimately linked to the ways in which 1857 brutally cemented Britain's imperial prowess. Indian nationalist glosses of history rely on an imagined Indian fighting a real and singular enemy (and the painting of “Indian” as necessarily “Hindu” becomes a major aspect of the retelling of this history, too). These are not merely historical entities: these are real, politically potent factions of British and Indian societies, among others. These are voting blocs, but beyond that, these are folks who imagine their identities as wrapped up in definitions that stem, in part, from the events of 1857. Alum Bheg, the solider, and The Skull of Alum Bheg, the book in question, do not sit comfortably with these simplistic narratives, but they both tell us quite a lot about processes of remembering.

This book begins and ends, really, with a story that is the stuff historians dream about: an artifact, gifted to Wagner, that is itself so rare and interesting as to beg to be theorized and explained. More than a fantastic cocktail party story, he acquired a set of scholarly tasks, all of which The Skull of Alum Bheg attend to well. First, Wagner needed to sit uncomfortably on a train with a human skull. Then he needed to verify its origin scientifically—a measure of how we historians take seriously the object in question via current standards of “truth”: surely, for some of us, that the skull and its story exist at all would be worthy of investigation. Here, however, Wagner tells us that without being able to truly determine if the skull was at least plausibly, actually that of a rebel, there would be no story at all (5). Later, he needed to piece the skull's travels, starting with when the skull was merely part of the body of a sepoy and, finally, when it had ceased to be a gruesome relic found in a pub in Kent but was, instead, a gruesome object of concern in an attic for its inheritors.

The skull, as Wagner tells us, is an object, symbol, relic, and artifact at once; it is, as his book demonstrates, a window through which to think about the local, multi-local, and global historical and contemporary imagination of Britain, India, and the Rebellion. What I mean by multi-local is that the skull had significance through lenses of locality in multiple places: in cities of Rebellion, especially Sialkot and in cities in Britain, especially the metropole, London, and Kent, where the skull came to reside. This is different than the local for two primary reasons. First, I mean to suggest a purposeful separation between “Britain” and “India” and their respective cities. It is clear that when Arthur Robert George Costello took Alum Bheg's skull after having witnessed his execution in 1858 that he existed within a particular locality different from that of Alum Bheg despite the fact that the two men shared the same space, even if only for a few moments while both alive. Costello's ability to witness Bheg's execution is related to global politics, to be sure. But the possibility to experience the skull as a skull, a trophy, or, though unlikely, an object for scientific study (Wagner 201) relates, in my read, to multiple localities operating in the same field. Costello maintained his Britishness on the field in Sialkot; the local norms in which he operated were not those of South Asia but rather of a white British Empire. Second, the multi-local, here, is different from the local because in order to make Bheg's skull meaningful it needed to inhabit a truly local space—it had to return as a souvenir or it would lose its symbolic meaning. This is to say that had Costello merely kept the skull in his barracks in India the trophy aspect of the skull would likely have been less meaningful; the power of the rebel's skull can only be made evident upon its export. At the same time, the skull demonstrates transnational modalities in the 19th century and beyond, given its route of movement but also its polyglot symbology. Wagner's strongest work in The Skull of Alum Bheg is when he asks, consistently, specifically how and why this particular skull came to have meaning, to be saved, to be displayed. I will return to this shortly but want, first, to examine the parts of Wagner's book that do other work.

Like many books about the Rebellion, Wagner traces the history it entailed, sometimes along well-worn routes. He outlines the Enfield Rifle and its purported ritually impure tallow (esp. chapter 2, “A Religious Question from which Arose our Dread,” pp. 37-63), the ways in which white women were particularly vulnerable during uprisings (e.g., 72-73), and British and Indic responses (e.g., 122-123, 45-46, respectively). All of these topics—among others—are both standard fare for books about the Indian Rebellion as well as necessary inclusions for a book that must assume its readers are unfamiliar with the subject. This is not a downfall of The Skull of Alum Bheg in the slightest. These subjects are meticulously researched and told in compelling ways. They are also, to be blunt, less interesting to someone who, like me, has spent a great deal of time thinking about and working through many of the same documents, archives, and topics. What is productive in these places, however, is a clear overview that is written to entreat the reader into the Rebellion's landscape and, importantly, that that landscape often centers Sialkot, an crucial site of revolt and violence in 1857 that is nevertheless underrepresented in much scholarship.

What is gripping about this particular version of the history of 1857 is, without question, the skull itself. The places where Wagner can return to it—or to Alum Bheg, its original owner—are the most exciting and thought-provoking. He does make an effort to insert Alum Bheg as often as he can sometimes referencing his particular regimen or, more commonly, sepoys like him in terms of training, ethnicity, location, language, age, and so forth (e.g., 99). For me, the skull so neatly allows for a conversation about memory and memorialization—the best parts of this book. Taken as a trophy from a rebel's execution, the skull can be read as a memorialization of the Rebellion itself, of British triumph, of a particular soldier's presence, of a particular rebel's death, of the ways in which the rebels' bodies were envisioned as monstrous, other, disposable.

Wagner explains Alum Bheg's skull at the outset (2-6). Here, he tells his readers both about the skull and about the note it contained, hidden in its eye socket. The note stated its owner's name, his “leadership” in the Rebellion and his membership in the 46th regiment of the Bengal North Infantry, his role in the infamous murders of Dr Graham and Rev Mr Hunter and his family; the note mentioned his appearance (“by no means an ill looking native”) and it named the second owner of the skull, Captain Costello. (Full note on p. xix.) From the start, then, we are thrust into a world in which disembodied messages from the past come to us from their encasements in what had been, some 150 years before, eyes. This note reflects a racialization of the skull's owner, thinly veiled suggestions of sexual violence against Hunter's wife and daughters, and the importance of the object itself: the skull, its owner, and its second owner are located as integral parts of an infamous event within the ever-vital Rebellion. The note itself, as Wagner helps us unpack throughout the introduction, is as much a material window into the Rebellion as the skull.

Even though Wagner starts with the skull, I think he best describes the heart of the skull's matter much later in the book. Mere pages from the end, he discusses what a skull could have meant in the mid-19th century to a soldier like Costello who, as mentioned above, did in fact take it:

A skull could be akin to a hunting trophy, testifying to the martial prowess of the 'barbarian gentleman,' but it could also be a momento of the 'Mutiny' or a souvenir from an execution witnessed. In Costello's case it was probably a combination of all three, although it appears that he did not want just any old skull and that the story of the murder of Dr. Graham and the Hunters was part of the intrinsic value attached to Alum Bheg's head. (202)

Wagner makes clear that the skull could be any number of things, but the connection of the skull to gruesome murders of white imperial subjects is paramount: this skull embodies a justification for British retaliation against treasonous, rebellious Indians. Later, he adds that the skull became “troublesome” as it represented “the violence of Empire, both Indian and British.” (203)

Alum Bheg's skull is more than a skull, of course. And this is, again, where Wagner's analysis shines. He argues that the skull “cannot be regarded as an isolated act pertaining only to the corpse of an executed enemy,” and reiterates that the skull's collection embodies and was informed by racialization, a hallmark and foundation of the imperial project itself (216). The skull and its collection may have had its origin in a charged event (the Rebellion) and in 19th century fashions (scientific rationalization for skull collection; global imperial projects; scientific racisms). But the skull's symbolism further stands to inform how racialized, imperialized others were seen and then made monstrous.

A skull is monstrous. The body to whom the skull belonged was made monstrous: a rebel, a violator of social, military, and natural order as both an assumed violator of (white) women's bodies and of racist notions of hierarchy. The monstrosity of such a violation both cannot be overstated—the bloody execution and its audience, the grotesque “collection” of the skull from the execution field, the physical processes required to extract a skull from its fleshy head, the movement of the skull across oceans—and also cannot be ascertained in this historical moment. But this is all sanctioned violence and thus, definitionally, not monstrous. Whether we can imagine Alum Bheg's skull as monstrous is informed by our own contemporary cultures and contexts, to be sure, but it is also informed by the ways through which we can remember the Rebellion itself. How the monstrous is remembered—or not—remains, in my read, Wagner's strongest contribution.

Alum Bheg's skull is not merely an imagined monstrous. It is material testimony to imperialism, violence, events that had physical consequences on and for Indian and British bodies. Wagner's ownership of Alum Bheg's skull demonstrates not just the preservation of historic artifacts or even the troubling practices of 19th century imperial agents, it also can help us think through contemporary debates about the propriety and repatriation of colonial-era items. Wagner doesn't directly take on this issue—which can range from demands to return stolen items housed in museums in London to those of financial reparations and beyond—but he does directly discuss what he, personally, wants to do with the skull. Wagner hoped to return it to India for a proper burial. While the strength of The Skull of Alum Bheg lies in its analysis of the local and global iterations of racialization, rebellion, and imperialism—how Alum Bheg's body, his story, his historical imbrication within the Rebellion, and, later, his disembodied skull could be made monstrous. An underlying theme that is important is precisely the opposite: how this skull is ordinary, even if its circumstances were not, and how this ordinary object can still be located within local, multi-local, and global contexts.

The memorialization of the events of 1857, the broader imperial project that supported and squashed the Rebellion and its aftermath, and the racialization of imperial subjects are ongoing. They are deployed directly or indirectly in schemes of nationalist ideologies, in the historic and continued racialization of Indians (and particularly Muslims), and specifically in the politics of thinking through the skull, who owns it, and how it ought to be dealt with next. The Skull of Alum Bheg is a fruitful micro-history that allows its readers to imagine the complexity of the Rebellion, its aftermath, its victims, its heroes, and its villains. Its best parts let us see how the Rebellion is long over but its aftermath lingers and begs our attention.