Historian Kim Wagner received an email from a couple in 2014. The couple mentioned in their mail that they owned a skull and did not feel comfortable with it. Also, they had no idea what to do with the skull.
Dr Wagner, who teaches Imperial History at Queen Mary University of London, immediately left his Mile End office for Essex. Upon his arrival at the couple’s residence in Essex, he discovered that more surprises were waiting for him. It was not only a skull….. There was also a handwritten note in a neatly folded slip of paper inserted in an eye socket of it. The note, written in English, told the brief story of the skull.
What was written in the note?
“Skull of Havildar ‘Alum Bheg’, 46th Regt. Bengal N. Infantry who was blown away from a gun, amongst several others of his Regt. He was a principal leader in the mutiny of 1857 & of a most ruffianly disposition. He took possession (at the head of a small party) of the road leading to the fort, to which place all the Europeans were hurrying for safety. His party surprised and killed Dr Graham shooting him in his buggy by the side of his daughter. His next victim was the Rev. Mr Hunter, a missionary, who was flying with his wife and daughters in the same direction. He murdered Mr Hunter, and his wife and daughters after being brutally treated were butchered by the road side.
Alum Bheg was about 32 years of age; 5 feet 7 ½ inches high and by no means an ill looking native.
The skull was brought home by Captain (AR) Costello (late Capt. 7th Drag. Guards), who was on duty when Alum Bheg was executed.”
The handwritten note
As per the note, the skull was of Alum Bheg, a rebel Indian soldier belonged to the Bengal Regiment. Bheg was executed in 1858, as he was blown from the mouth of a cannon in Sialkot (now in Pakistan). Later, the man – who witnessed the execution – brought the skull to England as a victory souvenir of the war against the Indians. However, the person – who prepared the note – did not mention why Bheg committed the alleged ‘murders’.
It is to be noted that native Hindu and Muslim soldiers, popularly known as sepoys in the South Asian country, rebelled against the British East India Company in 1857 after they came to know that gun cartridges (used by them) were greased with animal fat forbidden by their religions. The event was popularly known as ‘Sepoy Mutiny’. Professor Wagner had been discussing about that particular time of the colonial history with his students for long.
Meanwhile, Dr Wagner found that the lower jaw of the skull was missing and the remaining teeth were loose. The historian realised that it was necessary to verify the ‘age’ of the skull. With the permission of the Essex couple, he brought the skull to London’s Natural History Museum. After examining it, a forensic expert suggested that the skull dated back to the mid-19th Century and it belonged to a male of Asian ancestry. The expert also suggested that he was possibly in his mid-30s. Although there was no sign of violence (usual in case of execution by cannon), the skull bore cut marks from a tool. It means that the head was defleshed…… either by being boiled or being left exposed to insects.
In his publication ‘The Skull of Alum Bheg‘ (Hurst Publishers, 2017), Dr Wagner mentioned that the skull was discovered in a pub in south-east England in 1963. The Essex couple told him that they received the skull after one of their relatives took over the pub – called ‘The Lord Clyde’ – in Kent in 1963. According to the couple, the skull was stored under some old crates and boxes in a small room inside the building.
The couple had tried to gather information about Bheg, but failed. Then, they came to know that Dr Wagner was a historian who had penned a book on the Indian uprising or ‘the first war of Independence’.
“And so it was….. I found myself standing in a small train station in Essex with a human skull in my bag. Not just any other skull but one directly related to a part of history that I write about and that I teach my students every year,” stressed Dr Wagner.
The historian failed to find out the relation between the pub owner and a British Army Captain. He also had no information about Alum Bheg. To know more about the Indian soldier, he started conducting research on Bheg on the basis of information mentioned in the note. ‘The Skull of Alum Bheg’ is the outcome of his research work. In his book, Dr Wagner wrote that the real name of the rebel Indian soldier was ‘Alim Beg’, a Sunni Muslim from northern India. He further wrote that the Bengal Regiment was raised in Kanpur during the mutiny.
Dr Kim Wagner
Talking to the British media, the historian recently said: “I am very keen for Alum Bheg’s repatriation not to be politicised, and for the skull not to end up in a glass-case in a museum or simply be forgotten in a box somewhere.” He added: “My hope is for Alum Bheg to be repatriated and buried in a respectful manner in the near future.” The historian believes that the right place to bury Bheg would be on the island on the Ravi River near the current India-Pakistan border, as the sepoy and his fellow soldiers had taken shelter there after surviving the first day of the battle. “Ultimately, that is not for me to decide, but whatever happens, the final chapter of Alum Bheg’s story has yet to be written,” insisted Dr Wagner.
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