British imperialism is usually portrayed in the English media by English-speakers who are broadly sympathetic to Britain and thus see its colonial practices through rose-tinted glasses. It is portrayed as a somewhat benevolent empire, at least when compared to how the Belgians treated their colonies. The British built roads, railways, schools, and created administrative structures. All these were to enable more efficient looting of the colonies’ resources but they did constitute a legacy of sorts that they left behind. While they did commit acts of brutality, these tend to be downplayed.
The radio program The World had a segment that sheds quite a different light. They interviewed historian Kim Wagner who came across a skull found in a London pub and in tracking its history, found that it came from someone named Alum Bheg who had been killed by the British during the Indian mutiny of 1857, a massive anti-colonial uprising, that was put down with great brutality. He said that the British used a form of execution that I had not heard of before.
To set an example to people to not challenge British power, the British would tie people up and insert them in cannons without a cannon ball but containing the powder and then blow them to bits while forcing the people of the region to watch. This was designed to not just terrify people but also prevent the victims’ families from carrying out last rites on the bodies. Bheg was one such victim and his skull must have been taken back to England as a souvenir.
In the interview, Wagner traced Bheg’s story.
“At Sialkot, where Alum Bheg was, it wasn’t as violent as was the case elsewhere,” explains Wagner. “But there was a Scottish missionary couple and a small baby who were waylaid and cut down. And that is one of the murders that Alum Bheg was alleged to have carried out.”
“As I found out in the process of researching the book,” Wagner says, “Alum Bheg was actually innocent but as far as the British were concerned it didn’t matter much. Because all Indian soldiers — and in many instances, all Indian men in areas where the outbreak had happened — were considered to be guilty. With or without any evidence, really.”
“And my take is that you really cannot reduce the past to a simplistic binary of either good or bad,” says Wagner. “So, although my book describes in great detail a lot of horrific violence, at no point do I suggest that the British Empire in India was ‘bad,’ nor that it was ‘good.’ So what I would like for people to take away from a book like mine would be that it makes it difficult to be too proud of the empire when you remember these things.”
So when we watch Masterpiece Theater or Merchant-Ivory films or other presentations showing the genteel elegance of the British monarchy and colonial rule, all refinement and good manners, it is good to remember that it was also a time when they practiced acts of unspeakable violence and cruelty.