How did a Sepoy’s Skull end up in a London Pub?
In 1963, the owner of the Lord Clyde, a pub in the coastal English town of Walmer, Kent, made a gruesome discovery. Lurking in a lumber room at the rear of the pub, beneath unused boxes and crates, was a human skull! The discovery was reported in the local newspapers and the skull was put on display as the pub’s mascot for several years, before being forgotten again as years passed by.
A half century later, the new owners of the pub rediscovered the skull. Clearly uncomfortable with having a skull in their possession, they began looking around for someone who could suggest a more appropriate resting place for it.
They stumbled upon Prof Kim Ati Wagner, a Danish-British historian and an expert on colonial India (once a part of the British Empire) at the Queen Mary University of London. The pub owners, a couple, handed over the skull to Wagner, who took it home to conduct further research. The skull, Wagner writes in his book The Skull of Alum Bheg (C. Hurst & Co., 2017) “had the deep sepia hue of old age”, was missing its lower jaw and the few teeth that did remain, were loose. But what was most interesting was a note inserted into one of its eye sockets.
Its contents were arresting.
The neatly folded piece of yellowed paper contained a brief, hand-written note stating that this was the skull of ‘Havildar Alum Bheg’ of the 46th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry (BNI), who was “blown away from a gun” for the crime of being “a principal leader in the mutiny of 1857”.
The note alleged that he had killed a certain Dr Graham while he was fleeing for safety with his daughter. He had also apparently killed a missionary named Reverend Hunter, and raped his wife and daughter before slaughtering them as well. The skull had been brought home by a certain “Captain Costello”, who was on duty when Alum Bheg was executed.
Wagner’s first stop was the Natural History Museum of London. The note mentioned that Alum Bheg was around 32 years old at the time of his execution. Tests conducted at the museum confirmed that the skull was indeed of a man of Asian ancestry, in his mid ‘30s, and he was most likely killed in the mid-19th century.
Since the skull contained no tool marks, the flesh and skin had most likely been removed either by being boiled, or by leaving the skull exposed to insects. With the authenticity of the skull somewhat confirmed, Wagner proceeded to dive into the archives, and found what is a little-known chapter of the 1857 Revolt.
It did not take Wagner long to find out that Alum Bheg’s unit was stationed in the town of Sialkot, in the Punjab province of present-day Pakistan. At the conclusion of the first Anglo-Sikh War (1845-46), the East India Company had taken possession of Jammu & Kashmir, which it then sold to Gulab Singh Jamwal, the founder of the Dogra dynasty, via the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846, creating the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir.
However, Gulab Singh was a British puppet, his every move being dictated by an EIC “Resident”. Three years later, Punjab was annexed by the East India Company after the Battle of Gujarat, in 1849. In 1852, Sialkot was the base of a new cantonment. Its proximity to Jammu & Kashmir meant that troops stationed here could be deployed in Jammu & Kashmir at short notice. Its agreeable climate also meant that Sialkot became the winter seat of the EIC Resident of Srinagar.
Another advantage was, Wagner says, that the Sikh auxiliaries employed as soldiers here “had little love for the sepoys from the south, who had after all helped the British conquer Punjab just a few years before”. While the affair of the greased cartridges provoked rebellion in the Bengal army, Wagner says it drew no reaction in Punjab, because it was perceived as being “very much about the religious status and purity of the Brahmin and Rajput sepoys”.
East India Company moved into the Sialkot fort and Alum Bheg was stationed here, along with his compatriots from the 46th Regiment of the BNI. These soldiers were likely to have been from the vicinity of Kanpur, where the regiment had been raised.
Sialkot on the Eve of the Revolt
In the weeks leading up to the Revolt of 1857, there was mounting discontent among the local populace in Sialkot. This was in part due to the missionaries’ zeal in converting Hindus and Muslims to Christianity, which led them to believe that Company rule meant Christian rule, and that they would all eventually be forcefully converted. There were also those who had either been offended by the high-handed English, or had been unjustly punished for minor infractions or on the basis of mere suspicion, without any actual evidence.
In 1857, Sialkot was a remote station. It was 70 miles from Lahore, the centre of British colonial administration in Punjab. It was not connected by telegraph, and messages sent to the station would be wired to Jhelum, 60 miles north. From there, they would be carried by messengers to Sialkot!
Of the three infantry regiments stationed in Sialkot in 1857, only one, the 52nd Oxforshire Regiment, was composed exclusively of British troops. The other two – the 35th and 46th BNI – consisted of Indian troops commanded by British officers. There was also a native cavalry unit, the 9th Bengal Light Cavalry (BLC), as well as two batteries of artillery, of which one was British.
As in other stations in India, the locals outnumbered the British by more than 10 to 1, since British residents numbered a few hundred at most, while the town consisted of more than 20,000 Indians.
The first hint of trouble came late at night on 13th May 1857, when the 35th BNI was found to have suddenly left their beds and come out fully armed, without orders. They were eventually persuaded by their officers to return, but that same night, a messenger brought news that Delhi had fallen to rebellious sepoys of the 3rd Light Infantry of Meerut. Both mail and telegraph links to the south of Meerut had been severed.
The response of the colonial administration in Punjab to this crisis was to put together forces to try and retake Delhi. The backbone of this new ‘moveable column’ of British troops was to be the 52nd Oxforshire Regiment, and thus they were called away, along with British artillery. With Sialkot now almost completely devoid of British troops, the stage was set for an insurrection.
Revolt Breaks Out in Sialkot
Just before sunrise on 9th July 1857, troops from the 9th BLC mounted their horses and rode out, shooting at any European they chanced upon. Unbeknownst to the British commanders, and despite their best efforts, news had reached the native lines the previous night of an outbreak at Jhelum.
As news of the revolt spread, the colonial administration everywhere attempted to disarm and dismiss sepoys of the Bengal Army, since they were no longer considered trustworthy. The task of disarming the men of the 14th BNI had been entrusted to the newly formed ‘moveable column’ of British troops.
But as soon as they appeared on the scene, the sepoys panicked, armed themselves and dug in for a fight. The encounter lasted several hours, and for the 14th BNI, proved fatal. Of the 500 who resisted disarmament, less than 40 managed to escape. Apart from those who had been killed in the fighting, 108 were captured alive and executed. Jhelum was only 70 miles from Sialkot, and for the men of the 9th BLC and 46th BNI, it was clear that they would be next.
A party of riders headed off to the Sialkot jail and with the cooperation of the jailor and prison guards, who all happened to be from Awadh just like the riders, they began setting the prisoners free. The only safe place for the British residents of the town was the Sialkot Fort, which was manned by Sikh soldiers, who remained loyal to the Company.
The Merciful Among Marauders
As the panicked men and women retreated, they found scenes of destruction everywhere, as British houses all over town were being looted and torched. Wagner does note one curious thing – the men of the 46th BNI, even while rebelling against their British officers, did not harm them physically. Indeed, in many cases, the men escorted their officers to safety. In one case, the men even offered their officers salaries of a thousand rupees a month if they would join in the rebellion and command them!
The marauding bands of riders, however, were not as kind. Dr James Graham M.D., was fatally shot as he was riding to the fort with his daughter. Missionaries Thomas and Jane Hunter were first shot and wounded by a rider and then killed, along with their baby, by a servant who held a personal grudge against Europeans.
However, eyewitness testimonies recorded later, as well as diaries and letters which Wagner painstakingly went through for his book, reveal that Alum Bheg was not involved in any of these killings. “There is an element of detective work in piecing a story like this together,” he says. “It took me a while… to establish that Alum Bheg was innocent of the murders for which he was executed. I was reading the different accounts from the outbreak at Sialkot when it dawned on me that it could not have been him because the actual perpetrators were clearly identified.”
Battle of Wits
By afternoon, with almost all Europeans having either retreated to the fort or hidden themselves, and most European homes and institutions within the town having been destroyed, the sepoys of the 46th BNI marched off towards Gurdaspur. The ‘moveable column’ of troops was at this time in Amritsar, and so the rebels planned to circle past the town and onwards to Delhi. But what their scouts had failed to spot was that the column had been on the move.
Reginald Garton Wilberforce was an ensign with the 52nd Light Infantry, which was a part of the column. He wrote in his book With Them Goes Light Bobbee, of the ingenious piece of deception that had made this possible. Brigadier General John Nicholson, the column’s commander, had ordered all uniforms to be dyed khaki while the column was in Lahore. This allowed the column to camouflage themselves while they were on the move. Rebel scouts were also unable to identify the column for what it was, since they had expected the officers to be wearing their customary white uniforms.
The rebels faced off with Nicholson’s column on the 12th of July at a place called Trimmu Ghat, on the banks of the Ravi River. Although the rebels fought gallantly, they were no match for Nicholson’s troops, which among others also contained the 52nd Oxforshire Regiment, which had been stationed in Sialkot.
The column also had a dozen artillery pieces, which proved extremely effective against rebel infantry and cavalry. Those who survived the encounter retreated to an island on the river, where they held out until the 15th of July, when the Nicholson’s men finally overran their position.
But Alum Bheg and several of his compatriots had braved the currents of the Ravi, abandoning their hopeless enclave and escaping into the mountains of Kashmir. Here they shed their uniforms, with many dressing as pilgrims or ascetics. But even then, they had a price on their heads and were pursued by the British authorities.
By June 1858, Alum Bheg and his surviving compatriots, now starving and penniless and always on the run, made a desperate gamble. To secure provisions, they attacked the market in the town of Madhopur in Pathankot district of Punjab. The rebels had assumed that the locals would support their cause, but the local Punjabi population treated the men from Awadh as foreigners, and after the Revolt, looked upon them with suspicion. Armed British guards soon repulsed the attack, and several rebels were captured alive, including Alum Bheg.
Bheg, along with some 40 more men captured at Madhopur were marched back to Sialkot, where he was sentenced to death on 8th July 1858, a year after the mutiny broke out. The Morning Post newspaper carried a report on the execution of Alum Bheg (although he was not identified by name) along with two other rebels. The men were marched up to the guns and were lashed to their front, and then “the port fires were lighted, at a given signal applied to the vents, and the three unhappy wretches were instantaneously shivered to atoms”.
Wagner writes that native sepoy units were deliberately made to stand close to the cannons to witness the fate of their former comrades, and routinely had the shredded intestines of the condemned men blown in their faces. The impact from the cannon would sever both arms and legs as well as the head from the body, and it was after his execution that Alum Bheg’s head was picked up by a man Wagner identifies as “Captain A R Costello” of the 7th Dragoon Guards.
Saving A Piece of History
Costello had the flesh removed from the head and brought it back with him when he left India only three months later. How it came to be displayed in the Lord Clyde pub is unknown, but it is perhaps an irony that the pub is named after Field Marshal Colin Campbell, the 1st Baron Clyde, who as the Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army was responsible for suppressing the 1857 Revolt.
Little remains of the Sialkot rebellion. While Lucknow and Delhi are remembered, Sialkot and the Battle of Trimmu Ghat are “very much at the margins of the bigger story”, according to Wagner. Apart from Wagner’s book, only two other books have been written about the revolt in Sialkot. It’s a forgotten chapter in the story of the Great Revolt. And, apart from being all but erased from memory, there isn’t much to remind one of the event.
The Lord Clyde pub was shut down in 2011 and has since turned into a French restaurant, La Bouche. Captain Costello returned home to Edmondstown, where he married an actress and built a magnificent Scottish manor. The marriage did not last and the debts incurred for the construction of the house ruined the family financially. But the house still stands and currently has rooms available for tourists on Airbnb.
Thomas and Jane Hunter are still remembered in Sialkot, thanks to the Hunter Memorial Church, which was built in 1865 and is still standing, as does the bridge where they were killed, along with the prison and courthouse. Their graves, however, have been encroached upon and are almost impossible to locate today. The Sialkot Fort has all but disappeared, with only bits of a wall and a bastion left standing.
Not even the country that Alum Bheg once called home remains intact. While he was born in what is today’s India, he fought and died in what is Pakistan. His skull remains in Wagner’s possession. But after all these years, and the indignity of having his mortal remains put on display like some grotesque curiosity, Wagner says it is time for Alum Bheg to come home. Perhaps the island on the Ravi River, between the two nations, where the sepoys made their final stand, would be the ideal final resting place for Havaldar Alum Bheg, 46th Regiment, Bengal Native Infantry.
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