[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)
Discussion by Zoya Sameen (University of Chicago)
Zoya Sameen is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include South Asian colonial history, prostitution in empire, sex buyers and sex markets in modern history, and the ontology of gender and sex. She is currently working on her dissertation project, tentatively titled 'Buying Sex, Creating Markets: An Alternative History of Prostitution in Colonial India, 1870-1940,' which aims to present a history of sex buyers and evolving practices of sex-buying in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century South Asia.
The discovery in a British pub of the skull of a havildar (sergeant) named Alum Bheg, who was sentenced to death by being blown away from a cannon for his part in the 1857 Indian Uprising, should give us pause to consider the brutal expression of colonial violence in the Indian subcontinent. Alum Bheg's skull was brought to Britain by an officer who witnessed his execution and collected the skull as a trophy of colonial warfare and an assertion of personal dominance. A note found with the skull alleges acts of murder committed by Alum Bheg and subsequently affirms the justness of the colonial retribution meted out to him. The untold story of this havildar and his regiment of the 46th Bengal Native Infantry that rebelled against the British in Sialkot is the subject of historian Kim Wagner's latest book, The Skull of Alum Bheg.
Taking the brief note attached to the skull as his starting-point, Wagner's aim in this book is to retell the life and death of Alum Bheg, and how he went “from trusted ally of the East India Company in the nineteenth century to forgotten war trophy in a pubâ€¦a century later” (3). Building on his previous major work on the Uprising, The Great Fear of 1857 (2010), the author also wishes to more generally consider the collective grievances and motivations of non-commissioned officers in native regiments of the Bengal Army and colonial responses to them. Official documents, published records, and periodicals, alongside missionary accounts and papersâ€”some by the alleged victims of Alum Bhegâ€”are all crucial sources that help the author piece together this story. Wagner's account is not just about the sepoys, but also about 'ordinary people' from abroad who experienced “the maelstrom of fear, panic, and violence of the Indian Uprising” (7).
Yet, there is a significant problem facing Wagner: Alum Bheg's name was not found in any of the primary documents (other than the note) with which the book has been written. While the author convincingly argues for the authenticity of the skull and the fact of Alum Bheg's execution in 1858, he admits that the book is written “against the scarcity of evidence” and that the story of Alum Bheg is more of a 'subaltern prosopography' of Indian sepoys as a collective (7-8). This is apparent in the early chapters of the book, which are dedicated to establishing the colonial context in Sialkot and experiences of military service in Punjab by an Indian soldiery primarily made up of high-caste Hindus with a minority of Muslims and Sikhs. The everyday lives of these sepoys, their caste-related concerns about service, and the ripeness of newly-conquered Punjab for Christian proselytization are important themes taken up, with the author utilizing commentaries by Sheikh Hedayut Ali, Syed Ahmed Khan, and the American Presbyterian Andrew Gordon. To make up for the absence of sources on Alum Bheg, Wagner inserts the havildar into collective descriptions of sepoys through generous use of phrases such as 'Alum Bheg and the sepoys' and 'Alum Bheg and his comrades' throughout the book.
Wagner argues that high-caste NCOs feared they would lose their caste and be ostracized due to contact with items or food touched by low-caste workers, and that this exacerbated sepoy grievances against the British. The fear of losing caste and religious status was indeed an important factor in the Uprising, especially in light of responses to the infamous Enfield cartridges greased with animal fat. Nicholas Dirks has observed that sepoys feared the 'pollution' of their caste was a strategy put in place to bring in new converts to Christianity at a time when missionaries' presence and reach was becoming evermore pronounced (Dirks 2001:127). This point is underscored by Wagner, who affirms that sepoys increasingly viewed the missionary project as an extension of the colonial state and accordingly grew more suspicious of the intentions of their British officers.
Many historians of the Uprising have laid claim to a definitive thrust behind sepoys' actions. Eric Stokes (1986) took the sepoy as a 'peasant in uniform' and brought the Uprising into the ambit of agrarian history, while Rudrangshu Mukherjee (1984) emphasized the popular character of the revolt and suggested the peasantry did not have an entirely subaltern role in it. More recently Saul David (2002) has argued that religion was merely a garb for grievances that were actually brought about by limited career opportunities for sepoys. Wagner's approach to sepoys resists pinning down a primary motivating factor for their rebellion, and instead considers why the content of certain rumors and conspiracies about greased cartridges, bone-dust in flour, and tainted chapattis might have been believable to sepoys. In other words, why was resistance to the British an attractive or necessary option for sepoys in the context of this information? C.A. Bayly's notion of an 'information panic' is taken up here to understand both how conspiracy informed the sepoy rebellions and how it structured British understandings of the event itselfâ€”an expression of the “mutually reinforcing fears” between the two groups (Bayly 1996:74).
The focus in this book on Sialkot is welcome, and helps Wagner provincialize a narrative of the Uprising that typically focuses on activities in northern India. The reader is made to consider how sepoys in Sialkot might have responded to nearby developments, such as the rebellion of the 14th BNI at Jhelum, which turned out to be crucial to the decision to rebel in Sialkot. Whereas the book's buildup to the Sialkot rebellion focuses on Indian NCOs and takes Alum Bheg to be typical of the collective's behaviors, descriptions of the actual rebellion are told from, and focus on, the perspectives of Europeans caught in the precarious situation. The experiences of Andrew Gordon, the Hunter family, and the affluent Dr. Graham allow the reader to tap into the pandemonium of the event. However, Wagner also attempts to nuance the participation of the 46th by showing that the Sialkot rebellion was instigated by the 7th Bengal Light Cavalry, who were also the principle perpetrators of violence, whereas the 46th only followed suit after being prompted, and according to Wagner, did not join in the violence. The author further demonstrates that while some power-dynamics were being turned upside-down in the town, especially when freed prisoners stood side-by-side with prison guards, bonds between NCOs of the 46th and specific British officers did not immediately break down.
As to the specific role Alum Bheg might have played in the Sialkot rebellion on July 9, 1857, the reader can only speculate. It is only once the 46th and 7th regiments departed Sialkot, and subsequently met defeat when they were confronted by the vengeful John Nicholson's moveable column at the Battle of Trimmu Ghat, that the book gives us a better sense of the havildar and his actions. Since Wagner read newspaper articles and a witnessing officer's testimony against the original note to confirm Alum Bheg's execution on the morning of July 10, 1858, the reader knows that he was among the last members of the 46th to be executed. He survived Trimmu Ghat and fled to the Himalayas on July 16, 1857. He was not among the members of the 46th who were handed over to and subsequently shot by the British in Jasrota in Jammu. He was captured a year later, on June 2, 1858, when he, along with some other rebels from the 46th attempted a failed attack on the bazaar in Madhopur, and was sent back to Sialkot, where he was to be put to death.
It is in Wagner's descriptions of the execution where the reader is closest to Alum Bheg. Here he is stood as one among three sepoys who all met the fate of being shot from a cannon as punishment for their alleged crimes. Only, as Wagner asserts, Alum Bheg was innocent of the charges against him. As a member of the 46th, he was neither involved in the killing of Dr. Graham, nor in the killings of Mr. and Mrs. Hunter and their babyâ€”crimes he was put to death for. Utilizing witness accounts of Alum Bheg's execution and ones similar to it, the author paints as accurate a picture of the incident as he can. After being shot from the cannon, Alum Bheg's body was dismembered and his severed head thrown up in the air. Wagner suggests that Captain A. R. Costello, the man who brought the skull back to Britain, likely lifted the head as “bloodâ€¦ooz[ed] from the torn neck” and carried it awayâ€”a bloody but powerful symbol of colonial power (189). The assertion of colonial dominance in the aftermath of the Uprising did not simply involve putting rebels to death, it involved dehumanizing the bodies of rebels even after there was nothing left to animate them. Wagner's discussion on the relationship between skulls, war trophies, and militaristic dominance in the book's final chapter is a despairing reminder that “the humiliation and desecration of the body of the enemyâ€¦is hardly a thing of the past” (214).
This book then tells us more about Alum Bheg's death and its symbolism than it does about his life. Wagner's analysis of sepoy grievances in his early chapters, while illuminating, tells us as much about Alum Bheg as it does about any other NCO in the 46th BNI. The question of religion and the role of rumor is indispensable context for the rebellion, however, the insertion of Alum Bheg into these parts of the book through identifiers such as 'Alum Bheg and his men' seems contrived, even if it is justified in later chapters. For this reader, the book hit its stride in the chapters that centered on the execution and discussed colonial violence more broadly. One might argue that this is where the book could have weighed in more by considering in greater depth how the phenomenon of headhunting by British imperialists reflected a psychology of dominance.
One point of my disagreement with the author is in the book's introductory chapter. Wagner writes that his book does not seek to show the British Empire as either 'good' or 'bad' and that his book “is not a critique of Empire” (2). Yet, the author's assessments of colonial practices of violence and domination are impossible without an answer to the question of whether empire was just or not, and insofar as Wagner questions dominant assumptions about sepoys, challenges narratives of Christian supremacy, and depicts the reality of colonial violence, this book absolutely is a critique of empire. For the historian to avoid the question of moral judgment is not to abstain from speculation, but in the words of Constantin Fasolt, “it rather is to abdicate historical responsibility and give free reign to hidden judgments” (Fasolt 2004:131). Wagner is right to build a more nuanced understanding of the past, but is wrong to think that in doing so, one must altogether give up passing moral judgments on empire.
The author ends the book with a poignant call to deliver Alum Bheg his funeral rites that had been denied to him by the British, writing that he “deserves better than to end up in a display case” (223). Funeral rites can serve as a sliver of restorative justice. However, it would not be necessarily unfortunate or unjust if the skull of Alum Bheg were to end up in a display case, if doing so meant that the skull could be considered in its historical context for a wider audience. Museums have long overlooked the phenomenon of colonial violence, and exhibiting artefacts of such violence in responsible ways can help counter the growing imperial amnesia. The skull of Alum Bheg serves as a literal reminder of what empire was capable of doing to ordinary people when they questioned the foundations of colonial authorityâ€”Wagner's book calls our attention to the violence, both overt and hidden, behind the skull, its collection, and its exhibition.
Bayly, C. A. Empire and Information: Intelligence-Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
David, Saul. The Indian Mutiny. London: Viking Press, 2002.
Dirks, Nicholas. Castes of Mind: Colonial and the Making of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Fasolt, Constantin. The Limits of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Mukherjee, Rudrangshu. Awadh in Revolt, 1857-58: A Study of Popular Resistance. Delhi: Permanent Black, 1984.
Stokes, Eric. The Peasant Armed: The Indian Rebellion of 1857. Edited by C. A. Bayly. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
Wagner, Kim. The Great Fear of 1857: Rumours, Conspiracies and the Making of the Indian Uprising. Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd., 2010.