The Skull of Alum Bheg
From the first, scholar Kim A. Wagner freely acknowledges that he has not been able to uncover any historical reference to Alum Bheg outside the handwritten note accompanying his putative skull, let alone verify that said skull belonged to this specific shadowy sepoy. To what extent do these gaps in Wagner’s evidence blunt the persuasive power of The Skull of Alum Bheg? In other words, how much of his overall argument rests on pinpointing Bheg’s identity and tying the skull now in Wagner’s possession to that particular individual?
The Skull of Alum Bheg
The new book The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857, by the British historian Kim A. Wagner, is based on an incomplete skeleton retrieved from a shallow grave in northern India two hundred years ago. Its owner’s true identity was lost to history; all that remained was a handwritten note mentioning “Alum Bheg,” an obscure sepoy captured and hanged by British soldiers during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (Metcalf, 231). In 2016, Wagner went to Pakistan, where he met with a local historian who claimed to have Alum Bheg’s skull in his possession. It was as if the last piece had fallen into place in Wagner’s bid to reconstruct this man’s life. Wagner’s book is not exactly what it seems. Although it has been marketed as a biography, the book doesn’t explore Alum Bheg’s life so much as its reconstruction through archival sources and information about his final days. In fact, in the first paragraph of the book, scholar Kim A. Wagner freely acknowledges that he has not uncovered any historical reference to Alum Bheg outside the handwritten facts.
Wagner does an excellent job of contextualizing the Sepoy Rebellion and its aftermath. He also does a good job of detailing how and why these skulls became trophies in the first place, and he is quite convincing that Alum Bheg’s skull was part of this horrible practice. However, once Wagner focuses on Alum Bheg himself, the book lacks primary evidence. The most interesting parts of the book are those where Wagner himself explains his process of historical detective work, trying to determine who Alum Bheg might have been, what his origins were, what his motivations might have been (Bender, 254). Based on such scant information as a postmortem note and a photo of an unidentified skull, Wagner makes some educated guesses about Alum Bheg’s life (and death).
After all, how much of his overall argument rests on pinpointing Bheg’s identity and tying the skull now in Wagner’s possession to that particular individual. The answer is a lot. Wagner’s book is an effort to tell the story of the Indian Mutiny through the life of a single sepoy, Alum Bheg. It is a brilliant conceit in many ways, not least because it allows Wagner to examine the Revolt from various perspectives. To this end, he traces Bheg’s journey from his native village in present-day Pakistan to the battlefields of central India, where he died and tells us about his life along the way. Wagner paints a vivid portrait of Bheg’s world: we learn what he ate and how he dressed, who his friends and enemies were, what he did for fun and what kept him awake at night (Metcalf, 232). We are informed about what made him join the British Army in 1843 why he eventually revolted and fell out with his fellow rebels shortly afterward. The author’s aim is clear: to humanize Bheg and bring him back from history’s shadows. This paper will discuss Wagner’s opinion on the extent to which the gaps that exist blunt the skull's power.
Wagner also notes that Bheg never used his full name and was known as “Alum,” possibly because he once worked at Alum Bagh (a garden in Lucknow) or because he was born under the star Aries (Alum being an old name for Mars). Yet this potential ambiguity does not seem to trouble him. The skull in question does not belong to Alum Bheg. Because it was not taken off his head when he was killed, it is a common human skull, and there is no reason to think it belonged to anyone famous, let alone Alum Bheg, or indeed anyone at all who fought at the Battle of Sobraon (Kumar, Ghosh, and Pareek, 321). The skull in question is one of many collected by Lieutenant-Colonel James Edward Alexander during his 1846 visit to the battlefield of Sobraon. Alexander was in a position to secure the genuine article: he had visited the site within a few days of the battle and had been present at other Sikh battles, so he knew what he was looking for. He collected several skulls from the battlefield. The skull in question is one of them; but took very few other body parts, such as hands or feet. According to Alexander's account, these were removed by Indian sepoys who were eager to sell as many body parts as they could find to British soldiers on their way home; fingers, feet, and teeth were all prized souvenirs at this time. The sepoys also removed clothing, weapons and ammunition.
The Skull of Alum Bheg is a remarkable history work because Wagner manages to do so much with so little. He establishes that this skull belonged to a known insurgent and then uses it as an object lesson in understanding the course of the Indian Mutiny from the sepoy perspective.
Just as some readers might be persuaded to see Alum as a tragic victim, others are likely to be unconvinced that his story is worth telling (Bender, 253). They may suspect that Wagner has manufactured a martyred figure around the alone skull, with no historical basis for the tale he weaves. Wagner himself acknowledges that he has been unable to uncover any historical reference to Alum outside the handwritten note accompanying his putative skull, let alone verify that this specific skull belonged to this shadowy sepoy (Llewellyn-Jones, 539). Some readers might wonder why Wagner did not make more effort to trace the skull's origins, perhaps through DNA analysis or other means. Even if such an analysis was beyond the remit of this volume, Wagner could have made more effort to investigate whether Alum’s bones were still buried at Cawnpore. Surely, any attempt to unearth them would have been met with fierce resistance from locals, although this would have made for interesting reading but could not the same have been said about digging up the mass graves at Jallianwala Bagh.
In conclusion, this paper has discussed Wagner’s opinion on the extent to which the gaps that exist blunt the skull's power. Wagner has done a lot of detective work to uncover this, but he is honest about how much evidence he doesn't have. Even when he identifies Alum Bheg as the sepoy who fired the shot that killed General Sir Hugh Gough at the Battle of Gujrat, he admits no hard evidence. He can only piece together circumstantial evidence and make an educated guess. One of the things I love about this book is that Wagner doesn't hide behind academic language and jargon. He spells out all the questions and possibilities and clarifies what he does and doesn't know about Alum Bheg. As a result, I found his arguments quite convincing. The Skull of Alum Bheg is a dazzling and urgent intervention in studying colonial violence, one that confirms the value of transdisciplinary research, bringing together traditional historical methods with forensic anthropology, chemical analysis and test-firing experiments in furthering our understanding. It is also a fascinating detective story centered around the titular skull donated to the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds in 1857.
Bender, Jill C. "Kim A. Wagner. The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 288. $29.95 (cloth)." Journal of British Studies 58.1 (2019): 253-254.
Kumar, Ashutosh, Sanjib Kumar Ghosh, and Vikas Pareek. "Establishing the Identity from the Skeletal Remains of Alum Bheg, a Martyr from the 1857 Indian Freedom Struggle." Journal of Morphological Sciences 36.04 (2019): 321-328.
Llewellyn-Jones, Rosie. "Kim A. Wagner. The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857." (2018): 538-540.
Metcalf, Thomas R. "The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857. By Kim A. Wagner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xxix, 288 pp. ISBN: 978019087023 (cloth, also available as e-book)." The Journal of Asian Studies 78.1 (2019): 231-232.
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