How did a Danish historian wind up with a human skull from colonial India in his University of London office? Kim A. Wagner
’s The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857
(Oxford University Press, 2018) tells two stories. The first concerns the way in which he came into possession of the skull of a Muslim soldier executed by the British in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1857, also known as the Mutiny. The second story is Wagner’s attempted biography of Alum Bheg, a man who left no trace in the archive but whose head was taken as a battlefield trophy after his body was blown from a cannon in a grisly ceremony of revenge. Wagner uses this man’s life and death to explore British rule in India. The book raises important issues about the history of racialized violence in the colonial world. Wagner’s analysis is sure to challenge the ideas of those nostalgic for the Raj and for those who cherish India’s nationalist mythology.
Michael G. Vann is a professor of world history at California State University, Sacramento. A specialist in imperialism and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, he is the author of
The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empires, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford, 2018).