The skull of Alum Beg. The life and death of a rebel of 1857
Author : Kim A. Wagner
Year : 2017
Publishers : Penguin Viking, Gurgaon, Haryana, India
ISBN : 9780670090204
Mr. Wagner teaches history in London and in the George Washington University. He knows India well. His earlier works have included A new history of the Amritsar massacre, The Great Fear of 1857: Rumours, Conspiracies and the Making of the Indian Uprising and two books on Thugees. As a consequence, he views events in Colonial India from the Indian viewpoint and with empathy.
This book has its origins in an email received by the author from a couple who had found a skull in their attic. It had been put on display from 1963 at The Lord Clyde, a pub in Walmer, Kent. When the owners died, it was passed on to their relatives, ‘who kept it hidden away in a cupboard’. It eventually made its way into the attic where it was found in 2014. A brief note accompanied the skull. This note is reproduced in the prologue to the book and tells us that this was the skull of Havildar Alum Beg, 46th regiment, Bengal North Infantry who was executed as he was suspected to be a leader in the Sialkot region during the mutiny of 1857. It had been brought to England by Captain Costello, who was on duty when Alum Beg was executed.
The couple sought Mr. Wagner's help as ‘they did not feel comfortable with the thing in their house’ and as they had learnt of the author's interest in the 1857 uprising.
The book describes Mr. Wagner's ‘recovery … of the life story of the man who once looked out through those eye sockets and chewed with those teeth – the man who… inhabited the skull as the palace of the soul (to use Byron's words)’.
Mr. Wagner made up his mind ‘to break the cycle of humiliation and ignominy that he (Alum Beg) had suffered…’ and ‘restore some of the humanity and dignity that had been denied him’. The eventual goal was to restore the skull to a burial ground in an island surrounded by the Ravi river, near Alum Beg's village at the border between India and Pakistan.
A quotation from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) forms the first part of the introduction – and very appropriately so. The paragraph following this quotation sums up the purposes for which skulls are generally collected and displayed – in natural history museums, medical collections or ethnographic displays. Here, anonymous catalogue numbers replace the names of individuals from whom the skulls were obtained, thus ‘rendering them ethically more palatable’. ‘A skull in a doctor's office might affectionately be referred to by name, but it is really meant to represent humankind and supposed to show what a generic human cranium looks like. The anatomy students also do not need to know who the person they are dissecting was… This sanitized presentation of skulls hides the sad and sordid past of the individuals whose remains ended up … in the display cabinet …’ Alum Beg's skull was different. It was a trophy ‘irrevocably linked to a narrative of violence’.
Much of the book describes the facts gained by painstaking investigation in libraries, archives – especially those pertaining to the uprisings in India and in Alum Beg's village in Sialkot in 1857, and by visits to Sialkot, surrounding places and the fields where skirmishes, killings and executions had taken place.
We are introduced to all the players in the drama that ended in Alum Beg being ‘tied to the wheels of a cannon with the mouth of the heavy barrel pressing upon his chest’. The cannon had been loaded with a half-charge of gunpowder. As this was made to explode, Alum Beg's torso ‘instantaneously shivered to atoms’, pieces of flesh and bone were scattered all around and the head went bounding on the ground, whence it was collected by Captain Costello.
The events are narrated as they occurred, with honesty and impartiality.
The arrogance of some of the British military officers and the statements made on how exemplary and brutal punishment was needed to quell the last trace of insubordination in the Indian soldiers who had dared revolt against their British masters, are described in detail.
Findings of the author's research are narrated with honesty and sympathy for Alum Beg as he was not the leader in the uprising in Sialkot. ‘Alum Beg was essentially executed as a proxy for Hurmat Khan. Swept up by events over which he had no control, he was (executed) for murders he did not commit.’ Hurmat Khan, who was responsible for the killings of Europeans, was later apprehended and executed.
Those wanting to learn about the minutiae of the uprising of 1857, especially as it occurred in the small sector in and around Sialkot, will find a wealth of detail narrated with considerable sympathy for the soldiers who rebelled. The narrative of greasing of cartridges by fat obtained from cows and pigs – is dealt with in considerable detail. We learn that when the British army in India changed over to the Minié-type 0.577 calibre bullet, it became necessary to grease one end of the paper cartridge to ease the process of ramming it down the bullet to make a tight fit when it was loaded. The sepoy had to hold the greased end of the paper cartridge, where the bullet was, while tearing open the other end with the teeth. After the powder had been poured down the barrel of the gun, the cartridge would be rammed down, greased end first.
The knowledge that the fat was derived from cows and pigs inflamed both Hindu and Muslim sepoys. ‘The truth of the greased cartridges was that the British themselves could not say for sure whether or not fat from pigs and cows had been used.’ Governor-General Lord Canning is quoted as saying that the sepoys’ fears were well-founded.
These and other details are provided without any prevarication. The book is, thus, an excellent guide to many aspects of the uprising.
Equally important, for us, are the sections that deal with skulls in general and that of Alum Beg in particular. Chapter 11, But from the skulls of the slain is of considerable interest for the student of medical history. The manner in which skulls were collected by European officers, displayed as testimony of their power and valor and as their willingness to deploy savage methods against those they termed savages, is described with examples. ‘There was no pretence that the acquisition of the enemy's head served a purpose other than the intimidation of the enemy … (and) was excusable, even commendable’ in the eyes of superior officers.
Wagner traces the history of the exhibition of heads of rebels by the British on pikes at the gates of cities as a general warning from the Irish Rebellion of 1798 onwards. A reference is made to the American practice of scalping dead victims. Skulls were also collected for anthropological studies of racial differences. ‘Soldiers, medical personnel and colonial officials often doubled as amateur collectors and would-be scientists.’ Dr. Henry Harpur Spry of the Bengal Medical Service, present at the execution of thugs in 1832 ‘had the heads of half a dozen taken off’ so that he could send them with a history of each to the London Phrenological Society. The skulls of Indian thugs, believed to be hereditary criminals, were deemed to be of special interest to phrenologists.
During the Frontier Wars in South Africa (1779-1879), ‘scientific collecting of human remains and the dehumanization of non-white enemies in colonial warfare converged in the widespread practice of taking body parts as trophies.’
The grisly and nonchalant behavior of Dr. Robert Knox (1793-1862) of the 72th Highlanders is described in some detail. When asked how he managed to obtain a large collection of Xhosa skulls, he replied: ‘Why sir, there was no difficulty in Caffraria; I had but to walk out of my tent and shoot as many (Xhosa) as I wanted …’ Knox later taught anatomy at his school in Edinburgh and was infamous for obtaining bodies for dissection from the notorious body snatchers and murderers, William Burke and William Hare. (Knox's behavior in South Africa was later replicated by the Nazi, Amon Göth, who was called the butcher of Plaszów).
Wagner points out that ‘the British mutilated far more bodies than did the various local groups of the so-called savages they fought in South Africa and elsewhere in the Empire.’ He also refers to the Lushai campaign of 1871-1872. (The territory inhabited by the Lushai is present-day Mizoram.) The Lushai tribes had been notorious as head hunters. Wagner quotes a British officer who participated in the campaign: ‘In fact all the medicos with us were quite as eager for Lushai skulls as any Lushai could have been for theirs…’ This was explained - as were most atrocities by British army officers – as rational scientific exercises for creating collections, whereas those of their enemies were simply deemed savage and irrational!
This volume has much to offer in the form of unbiased historical analysis of the uprising of 1857, of the savage retributive manner in which British officers dealt with those they deemed guilty of rebellion – often without enquiry, adequate proof or trial – and of the practice of head-hunting by ‘civilized’ Europeans.