A.S.H. Smyth

Cannon law

The brutal punishments meted out certainly reignited the fears that had sparked the uprising in the first place

Many and various are the things one finds in Kentish pubs (I’m told); but few could top the sepoy’s skull discovered at The Lord Clyde, Walmer, complete with brief biography:

Skull of havildar ‘Alum Bheg’, 46th Regt. Bengal N. Infantry… blown away from a gun.

From this grisly starting point, Kim Wagner, lecturer in British imperial history at Queen Mary University of London, narrates how, in the swelter of mid-1857, following outbreaks throughout British India, native Bengal Army units at Sialkot mutinied, killing officers and civilians and looting the cantonment, and then set out for Delhi to join Bahadur Shah, the briefly-minted ‘Emperor of India’.

They didn’t make it. All but wiped out by ‘Nikal Seyn’ Nicholson’s moving column, the survivors fled into the Himalayas. A year later they were dragged back to Sialkot and executed, havildar Bheg among them. His head was picked up, ‘defleshed’ and brought home to Dublin by a captain of the 7th Dragoon Guards — ‘the ultimate proof’, as Wagner deems it, ‘of colonial power’.

Alive, it must be said, Alum Bheg does not feature too prominently. An ‘archival absence’ about him before his execution surely means he was not a ‘principal leader in the mutiny’, as the note appended to his skull suggests. By and large it would appear that he died as proxy for a more notorious mutineer, the cartoonish former flogger of the district court.

But how the havildar (or sergeant) went from loyal servant of John Company to mutineer gives scope for looking at the wider mutiny. Indian conceptions of armed service proved incompatible with the East India Company’s. The sepoys — largely Hindustanis, in the Punjab which they’d recently helped to add to British territory — saw themselves as kingmakers, a caste-like group unto themselves, with privileges to uphold and a strict, contractual attitude towards the ‘military labour market’.

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