The Skull of Alum Bheg: Mutineer and War-Trophy

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:20 AM
Plaza Ballroom A (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Kim A. Wagner, Queen Mary, University of London
In 1963, a human skull was discovered under some disused crates in a pub in Kent in Eastern England and an old note stuck inside the cranial cavity gave a brief outline of its history: The skull belonged to one Alum Bheg, a sepoy or Indian soldier in British service, who had been executed by being blown from a cannon during the suppression of the Indian ‘Mutiny’ in 1857. Amongst Bheg’s alleged crimes were the brutal murders of several British families, including women and children, who had been killed during the outbreak at the garrison town of Sealkote, in what is today Pakistan. While there are numerous accounts of skulls or body parts having been taken as trophies during the numerous colonial campaigns of the nineteenth century, the skull of Alum Bheg is the only one known to have survived without having been either repatriated or incorporated within a museum or scientific collection. This paper seeks to situate the story of Alum Bheg and his skull within the broader context of colonial violence, especially the performative ritual of executions, as well as collection of human remains. The violence that produced Alum Bheg’s skull, and which was made explicit in the accompanying ‘micro-history’, serves as a poignant reminder of the otherwise hidden violence implicit to phrenological and anthropometric practices of the nineteenth century more generally. In the case of Alum Bheg, the taking of his head, and the preservation of his skull, cannot be regarded as an isolated act pertaining only to the corpse of an executed enemy. The ‘making’ of Alum Bheg’s skull was in a sense the logical extension of his punishment and execution and as such deeply entangled with the forms and functions of colonial violence within the British Empire.