Whose Civilising Mission?


It accused him of murdering Europeans: as punishment, he had been ‘blown away from a gun’.
Half a century later, the publican’s heirs – who felt queasy about the matter – contacted Kim A. Wagner, an academic of British imperial history at Queen Mary, University of London.
Men condemned to death by ‘cannonade’ were bound hand and foot to cannon wheels with the barrel pressing into their chest; a half-charge of gunpowder was enough that Alum Bheg, according to an eyewitness report, was ‘instantly shivered to atoms’.
The method was designed to mutilate bodies to such an extent that neither Hindus nor Muslims could perform traditional funeral rites.
Wagner’s astonishing final chapter surveys the popular British imperial sport of headhunting.
Yet skull-collecting was not scientifically rigorous: some were turned into cigar-holders or, as with Alum Bheg, ended up in pubs.
The British mania for collecting skulls was even satirised in Punch , where it was waspishly suggested that headhunting ‘establishes another tie of fellow-feeling and common usage between us and our savage dependencies’.
The current trend for reducing history to whether empire was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, he says, is ‘both analytically inept and intellectually parochial … Mindless empire-bashing is as tedious as jingoistic empire-nostalgia and … makes for poor history’.
No museum will take it owing to its controversial status and the complex process of legal repatriation requires a great effort of political will both in India and in Britain.
Perhaps this engrossing book will draw attention to the case and what remains of Alum Bheg may finally be put to rest.
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