Title: The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life And Death Of A Rebel Of 1857

Author: Kim A Wagner

Publisher: Penguin

Price: Rs. 599/-

Pages: XXV + 287

While we will never know exactly what moved Costello (an Irish officer present at the execution of Alum Bheg) to pick up the bloodied head of Alum Bheg, and go through the visceral process of defleshing the skull in order to bring this grisly trophy back home, it is nevertheless possible to make some educated inferences,” writes Kim A Wagner. Kim teaches the history of colonial India and the British Empire at Queen Mary, University of London.

In 1963 a human skull was discovered in a pub. The handwritten note found with it revealed the skull to be that of Alum Bheg. The book revolves around the skull of Alum Bheg an Indian soldier who was blown from cannon for his role in the 1857 uprising.
Book doesn’t talk much about the life of Alum Bheg, not because author did not make an effort to find out about him, but because nothing much is available about him. The effort made by the author to trace historicity of Alum Bheg is commendable. It is a historical book, with maps, images, pictures, detailed notes and bibliography, etc.

The book revolves around the skull and gives an insight into the life and times of colonial India, mostly in what is today’s Pakistan. It vividly describes Europeans macabre fetish for collecting and exhibiting body parts. It is called ‘memento mori’ in the Victorian tradition. Skulls were loved by both European male and female and used in day to day life. One of the favourite uses of the human skull was that of a ‘cigar holder’. In Uganda, European had paid money to locals to kill and eat a young girl in order to satisfy their curiosity.

Kim is not the one who minces word and clearly states that missionary school were a tool for proselytising, And goes on to quote: “Of course the conversion of souls, not the education of the young, is the Church’s design in sending her ministers to India,” and states,
“Sialkot was by the beginning of 1857 practically overrun by zealous Christians.” The colonial rule benefited immensely from the conversion when the neo-converts saved the British from the Indian soldiers during an uprising by acting as spy.

They were also Indian soldiers who stood by the British and they were also treated with equal cruelty after the uprising. As per the author, “Any previous bond of friendship or loyalty were considered to have been disingenuous and deceitful.” Along with few Indians, Chinese too stood by British by not letting Indians enter their territory to cross over to Nepal.

The book describes in details how cruelty was used as a tool by British to govern. In spite of the cruelty of British the way Indians fought for freedom, without ammunition, without training, without a structured organisation and leadership gives goosebumps. Some of the soldiers tried to employ British soldiers to join in them in their fight against British and offered them handsome terms and conditions along with money. We Indians still do not know the sacrifices made by our forefathers to give us freedom, thanks to 70 years of profane secular education. And this is the reason may be Indians do not value the freedom they have today.
We are aware of Jalianwala Bagh massacre, but in reality, British carried several and equally or more severe massacres and the book describes few of them. More importantly, none, not a single soldier before his execution expresses any fear or pain, a fact documented in the book at several places quoting numerous officers.

Battle of Trimmu Ghat, where the soldiers from Sialkot gave a tough fight to British needs to be researched more and talked about. British buried Muslim soldiers according to their rituals, but same treatment was not meted out to Hindu soldiers.  The book has been written with brutal honesty and deserves praise for the same. It also reminds one how much of Indian history related to its freedom movement has not been explored yet and how much which is available but hidden from Indians. And yes, as per records, Alum Bheg was innocent; he did not kill anyone, rather he was most probably among those who had saved a few Britishers.

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