It may not have caught the attention of historian Kim Wagner had there not been a neatly folded slip of paper in the eye-socket of the skull, which read: “Skull of Havildar Alum Bheg 46th Bengal Infantry, who was blown away from a gun. He was a principal leader of the mutiny of 1857 and of a most ruffianly disposition.” Intrigued by the manner of execution and the subsequent collection of the skull as a trophy, Wagner sought to restore some peace for the dispossessed by piecing together the history of barbaric treatment of the natives. It is a work which scholars call subaltern prosopography, depicting the cruelty of the natives and the barbaric retribution which followed.
Following the execution, the skull was carried home by Captain A.R.G. Costello, a witness to the execution in Sialkot on July 10, 1858, before it resurfaced a century later at pub The Lord Clyde in 1963. It took another 50 years before the inglorious skull coincidentally reached a Danish historian researching imperial executions. The Skull of Alum Bheg is a meticulously researched, gripping narrative that brings to life the human aspects of imperialism. Staying clear of both mindless empire-bashing and jingoistic empire-nostalgia, the narrative provides a nuanced understanding of the past by portraying the personalities on all sides of the conflict. The brutal outcome reflects the relationships and circumstances between the ruler and the ruled, leading us to address the enduring legacies of imperialism that are still with us.