A Peculiar Email
When a Danish lecturer received a strange email regarding a skull found in a southern English pub, he couldn’t help but be intrigued. However, he never could have expected this one message would take him on a journey throughout history and reveal a disturbing note that was hidden within the skull…
Queen Mary University
Dr. Kim Wagner was a Danish senior lecturer at the Queen Mary University of London. A lover of British imperial history, he loved sharing his passion with his students on a daily basis.
The Strange Email
It was a normal day of lecturing for Dr. Wagner in 2018 when he received an odd email from a family who had discovered a skull in the backroom of a pub they had inherited from their parents.
Not sure what to do with it, they felt it may be of some interest to Wagner.
According to the family, they had inherited the skull from their parents, who had taken possession of it when they bought a pub, The Lord Clyde, back in 1963 in the seaside town of Walmer. According to Wagner, they had discovered the skull under piles of junk in the pub’s storage.
To say he was intrigued would be an understatement.
The family revealed to Wagner the skull was in pretty poor condition, yellowed with age, missing its jaw bone as well as several teeth. Obviously, it had not been cared for as it should have been throughout the years.
A Sensational Find
In 1963, when the skull was first discovered it made quite a stir in the local paper. The new pub owners had been photographed with their grisly trophy standing proudly with their find. However, the children were far from pleased to have the disgusting artifact in their possession.
Therefore, they reached out to Dr. Wagner to see if he might be interested.
A Piece of History
You may be wondering why all the fuss over an old skull? Well, that’s because this isn’t just any skull, it’s a well-documented piece of history. The skull is best known for a document that was stuffed in one of its eye sockets, carefully folded and just over 170 words.
It was the contents of the note that quickly piqued the interest of Dr. Wagner since it was directly related to his academic field and study of the British Empire. The opening of the letter brought upon further intrigue.
A Cryptic Opening
“Skull of Havildar ‘Alum Bheg,’ 46th Regt. Bengal N. Infantry, who was blown away from a gun, amongst several others of his Regt. He was a principal leader in the mutiny of 1857 & of a most ruffianly disposition.”
According to Dr. Wagner, the opening of the letter was a direct reference to a mutiny that occurred between the Indian soldiers and others fighting against British rule. The mass uprising has been well-documented in history, but this firsthand account was very special.
While the skull and note were of value to Wagner, he needed to verify that they were actually connected to one another. It would be quite embarrassing if neither item had anything to do with one another.
Confirming the Connections
“The first thing I had to do was to confirm that the skull itself matched the story. If, for instance, it turned out to be that of a 90-year-old woman, then that would have been the end of it…”
Analyzing the Skull
After collecting the skull from the family (who were more than happy to get rid of it), Wagner delivered the artifact to the Natural Museum of History in London. He hoped through carbon dating and a detailed examination, they could confirm the skull indeed belonged in the same time period as the letter.
Results Are In
Dr. Heather Bonney helped spearhead the efforts on the skull at the museum and was able to confirm that the skull came from a mid-19th century male in his 30s. It was determined the male was of Asian descent. However, there were no signs the skull belonged to someone who died a violent death.
The Logistics of Death
However, Wagner didn’t find the results too surprising. If someone was tied to the mouth of a cannon, the torso would be blown to smithereens when fired, but the head would most likely remain intact. Therefore, Wagner had all the confirmation he needed.
It seemed the skull had belonged to a man who was involved in the Indian Mutiny, of course, the Indians refer to this event differently, calling it the “First War of Independence.” This moment in history was considered an early blow in India’s battle for liberation from Britain. Of course, freedom was achieved eventually in 1947.
The 1857 Conflict
According to Wagner, the uprising was the largest anti-colonial movement in history. During that time, the British ruled India through an agency known as the British East India Company. Over 300, 000 Indian troops known as sepoys controlled the country.
That is…until the country fought back. The uprising began in May 1857 and ended by June 1858.
The Sepoys Revolt
According to history, the revolt began with the sepoys but quickly spread throughout the Indian population. During that time there were over 50,000 British troops in India. While there were many major battled, there were also smaller brutal massacres.
A Sad Defeat
Unfortunately, the Indians were no match for the British forces. They were defeated by Sir Colin Campbell. He would later be made Baron Clyde, which is who the pub was named after and the location where Alum Bheg’s skull was found.
According to Wagner, Alum Bheg was a rebel soldier and the note inside the skull detailed how he and other forces waylaid British citizens fleeing for safety. During this time they show and killed Dr. Graeme and a Reverend Hunter, along with their wives and daughters.
Talk about brutal.
Within the note, Alum Bheg was described as being 5 feet and 7 inches tall, and around the age of 32 when he died. His execution was attended by Captain Costello of the 7th Dragoon Guards, and it was revealed Costello was the one who brought the skull to England.
Wagner continued to research the note and skull, discovering letters written by a man named Andrew Gordon. Gordon had been friends with two of the men Bheg had executed and was actually a witness to Bheg’s own execution. The letters helped uncover the execution site, which was in Sialkot, the modern site of Pakistan.
The Journey to Sialkot
With his curiosity piqued and the call to adventure strong, Wagner decided to journey to Sialkot to learn more about Bheg. According to history, the city had been the host of a battle between the British troops led by General John Nicholson and the sepoys.
Sepoys vs. the British
The sepoys had been marching to Delhi, but Nicholson’s forces were able to cut them off at the Ravi River. The battle took the lives of 1,100 sepoys. Wagner believed that Bheg had been with them and was captured.
Uncovering the Truth
During his time studying Bheg, Wagner discovered that he was most likely a Sunni Muslim from northern India. His execution was appalling in the sense that with his body physically destroyed, both Muslims and Hindus would be unable to carry out traditional funeral rites.
A major blow for Bheg’s soul.
A Dead End Opens a New Door
Unfortunately, Wagner could not find any more evidence about Bheg that was documented. However, he did uncover more information about Costello. Born in County Mayo, Ireland, Costello bought a commission in the 7th Dragoon Guards in 1851. He wouldn’t actually arrive in India until 1851 when the uprising was almost over.
Returning to England
Costell would only stay in India until August 1858, when he left the army and returned to England with Bheg’s skull. However, how the skull wound up in the Lord Clyde pub still remains unsolved.
Wagner believes it can’t be a coincidence that Baron Clyde, who stopped the rebellion, would wind up with it.
Not the Only One
Apparently, Alum Bheg wasn’t the only one taken to England. It was reported that in 1911 that a sepoy skull from the 49th Regiment of Bengal Infantry was placed with a museum of the Royal United Service. The skull had been converted into a cigar box.
Returning the Remains to India
Wagner, now in possession of Alum Bheg’s remains, believes it is his duty to return them to their rightful place in India. While he hasn’t been able to locate any of Bheg’s relatives, he believes it is truly the right thing to do.
Finally At Peace
“I’d like for Alum Bheg to finally be put to rest in a respectful manner after he’s been kept in various boxes and attics for more than a century.”
Soon, Bheg will finally be at peace.