The Skull of Alum Bheg
The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857
An absorbing history charting the long afterlife of the 1857 ‘Indian Mutiny’ and the Victorians’ macabre fetish for collecting body parts.
In 1963, a human skull was discovered in a pub in Kent in south-east England. A brief handwritten note stuck inside the cavity revealed it to be that of Alum Bheg, an Indian soldier in British service who was executed during the aftermath of the 1857 Uprising, or The Indian Mutiny as historians of an earlier era described it. Alum Bheg was blown from a cannon for having allegedly murdered British civilians, and his head was brought back as a grisly war-trophy by an Irish officer present at his execution.
The skull is a troublesome relic of both anti-colonial violence and the brutality and spectacle of British retribution. Kim Wagner presents an intimate and vivid account of life and death in British India in the throes of the largest rebellion of the nineteenth century. Fugitive rebels spent months, even years, hiding in the vastness of the Himalayas before they were eventually hunted down and punished by a vengeful colonial state. Examining the colonial practice of collecting and exhibiting human remains, this book offers a critical assessment of British imperialism that speaks to contemporary debates about the legacies of Empire and the myth of the ‘Mutiny’.
Kim A. Wagner is Senior Lecturer in British Imperial History, Queen Mary, University of London. He has written three previous books on Thuggees and on the 1857 Uprising.