Story of a Skull: Rethinking Narratives of Empire

Claims to a dispassionate approach to the history of the British Empire invariably rely on the assertion that ‘it was not all bad’ and that, as we all ought to know, the other European imperial powers were worse than the servants of Queen and Country.

A so-called balanced approach is nevertheless little more than a euphemism for denying the extent of racialised violence and invariably results in the argument that the ‘good’ outweighed the ‘bad’ – or, as Professor Nigel Biggar has recently put it, that ‘pride can temper shame.’ However, the assertions that the Empire was all bad, or that it was on balance a force for good, are not the only positions available when examining the past today. It is possible to study British colonialism without either condemning or condoning it – even at its most brutal. In a post-Brexit era of swelling imperial nostalgia and revisionism, what happened to the hapless Indian sepoy Alum Bheg offers a telling example of how a genuinely nuanced history of the British Empire is yet to be written.

In 1963, the new owner of The Lord Clyde pub discovered a human skull stowed away in a small storeroom. Inserted in the eye-socket was a handwritten note that briefly outlined the skull’s history: the skull belonged to Alum Bheg, an Indian soldier in the service of the East India Company. During the 1857 Uprising, he had supposedly played a leading role in the mutiny at Sialkot, in what is today Pakistan, and was said to have personally murdered an entire family of Scottish missionaries. He was caught and exactly a year later was executed by being blown from a cannon. An Irish officer serving with the East India Company who was present at the execution picked up Bheg’s skull and brought it home as a grisly war trophy when he returned from the Indian campaign the following year. How it eventually ended up in the pub in Deal remains unknown.

In 2014, I was contacted by the family who had come into possession of Alum Bheg’s skull. They felt most uncomfortable keeping it in their house so I agreed to take it off their hands with a view to establishing its provenance and if possible to repatriate it to India. And so it was that I found myself standing at a suburban train station outside London on a wet November day, with a human skull in my rucksack. Not just any skull, but one directly linked to a part of history that I write about and that I teach my students every year.

I felt an immediate urge to recover something of the story of this man whose mortal remains I had so serendipitously become the custodian of. My research took me to archives in both Britain and India and I retraced the steps of Alum Bheg at the site of the Mutiny at Sialkot, which is now in Pakistan, and in the foothills of the Himalayas. I then set out to restore some of the humanity and dignity that has been denied Alumq Bheg by telling the story of his life and death during one of the most violent episodes in the history of British India.

What was particularly important to me was not just to tell the well-known story of the Indian Uprising, but to recover some of the perspective of the thousands of sepoys who turned against the British, many of whom ended on the gallows or trussed up to the mouth of an artillery piece. For the first time, the story of the causes behind the events of 1857 are thus told from the perspective of an individual, and without recourse to either British colonial narratives or modern Indian nationalist accounts. In shedding light on Alum Bheg’s story, I also explored the parallel lives of other individuals, – namely British and American missionaries in India – ordinary people whose lives were so dramatically transformed, or simply cut short, by the maelstrom of fear, panic, and violence of the Indian Uprising.

My research revealed several surprising discoveries, not least of which was that Alum Bheg was most likely innocent of the crimes for which he was executed. But I also uncovered a broader story of British retribution and the deliberate use of culturally offensive measures to punish rebels during the bloody suppression of the Indian Uprising. In the throes of a rebellion which threatened to overturn British rule in India, there was nothing liberal or restrained about the way the British treated their enemies. The taking of human body-parts as trophies was moreover a widespread practice during the nineteenth century and throughout the Empire. The skulls of slain Zulus, Dervishes or Pathans were collected for scientific purposes but also to adorn the gentleman’s smoking room – in some instances turned into grisly ornaments, ashtrays and tobacco boxes. At a time when headhunting was commonly regarded as the prerogative of primitive savages living in the jungle, the British were themselves the most prolific headhunters of all. What happened to the skull of one sepoy offers a disturbing narrative of life and death in British India that speaks directly to contemporary debates about the legacies of the Empire as well as the darker side of conflict, past and present.

 

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