Alum Bheg: Unknown chapter of a soldier`s life

Dhaka, Tuesday   07 April 2020


Alum Bheg: Unknown chapter of a soldier`s life


 Published: 11:03 PM, 10 October 2019   Updated: 10:08 AM, 11 October 2019

Photo: Collected

Photo: Collected

In 2014, while sitting in an office in London's Mile End, professor of history Kim Wagner received an email from a British couple who said they owned a skull. They thought that the skull could be an Indian of the sepoy mutiny.

The couple told him they did not feel comfortable with the "thing" in their house and did not know what to do with it. It would be better if the professor himself came once and saw the skull. In the email, the couple invited Wagner to their home.

Dr. Wagner, who teaches imperial history at the Queen Mary University of London, naturally felt romantic after reading the email. Sepoy Rebellion? He was researching that time (Sepoy Munity) of the British colonial period. So he did not too late after receiving the email. On a wet November day, which was also his birthday, Dr. Wagner met the couple.


The latter found with the skull 

Surprise after surprise was waiting for the professor. Not only the skull had, but it also contained a detailed handwritten note in English. It was written in detail whose skull it was. From the note it was reported that the skull was of Havildar "Alum Bheg," 46th Regt. Bengal N. Infantry. The sepoy played an important role in the Sepoy Revolt that took place in 1857.

The Alum Bheg was one of the few soldiers who led the revolt. Alum Bheg was about 32 years of age; 5 feet 7 ½ inches high and he was not an ill-looking native at all. It was thought that the sepoy was ill-tempered. As the revolt started to sparkle in various barracks, a group of Indian sepoys led by Alum Bheg seized the road leading to the regiment's fort.

When all the Europeans were hurrying for safety, Alum’s 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 roadside. But there was no information in the note of why those European civilians were killed.

How Alum Bheg died was known from the note. Alum Bheg was executed in 1858 by being blown from the mouth of a cannon in Sialkot, (a town in Punjab province located in present Pakistan). At that time, Captain AR Costello, a British Army officer on duty, cut off Alum Bheg’s head from the body as a 'war memorial'. After retiring from the army, Costello returned to England and brought the skull to his country.

The lower jaw of the skull was missing, the few remaining teeth were loose, and it had the "sepia hue of old age". There was no sign of violence to the skull, said the expert, which is not unusual in the case of execution by cannon.


But first Dr Wagner had to confirm that the skull matched the history outlined in the note, written by an unknown person. At London's Natural History Museum, an expert examined it and suggested that it dated back to the mid-19th Century; and that it definitely belonged to a male of Asian ancestry, who was possibly in his mid-30s.

The violence symbols on the skull indicated that the head had been separated from the body with a sharp weapon after death. Wagner was confirmed that as the information obtained from the experiment and the information given in note were the same; the skull was of an Indian sepoy who died in the sepoy rebellion.

Based on the note's writings, Professor Wagner began to collect more information. There another incident happened, in 2014, members of the Bheg family traveled to England to retrieve Alum Bheg’s severed head. They found out that the skull was with Kim Wagner by informing them from various news. They also contacted Wagner. As a result, Wagner stepped up to further his research. After three years of research, he uncovered a lot of unknown information about that sepoy and later wrote a book based on that research. The book is titled 'The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857'.

In the book, the author described all the events of Bheg's life and his death during the Sepoy Mutiny in the British colonial period of the nineteenth century. In his book Wagner written that the real name of the person mentioning in the note was 'Alum Bheg '. He was a native of Northern India. At the time of the revolt, he was a sepoy of the Bengal Regiment at Cawnpore (now Kanpur) in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Although there were a large number of Hindu sepoys in the regiment, about 20 percent of the Muslim sepoys also served there. This sepoy was originally a guard in the regiment. He also served as a correspondent for the regimental high-ranking officers. During the Sepoy Rebellion, he participated in the Trimmu Ghat war and led a group of sepoys. He was arrested on July 1857, when the sepoy mutiny failed. He was jailed for almost a year. In 1858, he was executed for the crime of rebellion.


According to the British couple they had inherited the skull after one of their relatives took over a pub in Kent called Lord Clyde in 1963. Nobody quite knows how the skull ended up in the pub. The local media had excitedly reported on the "nerve-shattering discovery" in 1963 and carried pictures of the new pub owners "proudly posing with the grisly trophy" before it was put up on display at the pub. When the owners died, it was finally passed on to their relatives who simply hid it away.

Dr. Wagner writes that his book sets out to "restore some of the humanity and dignity that has been denied to Alum Bheg by telling the story of his life and death during one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of British India".

"I hope I have prepared the ground for Alum Bheg to finally find some peace, some 160 years late."

Yasmin Khan, associate professor of history at the University of Oxford, says the book "reads like a detective novel and yet is also an important contribution to understanding British rule and the extent of colonial violence".

The British ruled India for 200 years until the country's independence in 1947. However, the foundation of the East India Company was somewhat shaken by the Sepoy Revolt in 1857. Therefore, all the soldiers involved in this struggle deserve the honor of heroism.

Wagner wanted this leader involved in sepoy mutiny to be buried in the proper dignity in his country. He was born in India and died in Pakistan. So Dr. Wagner's intention was to bury Bheg somewhere in the middle of the Indo-Pakistan border.