The historic repatriation of a giant lizard in a jar from Scotland to Jamaica is more than a symbolic gesture

A specimen of the Celestus occiduus housed at the Natural History Museum, London. Photo by Simon J. Tonge via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0 DEED. This is the same lizard species that is being repatriated to Jamaica, though not the specific specimen.

Culturally, many Jamaicans have a horror of lizards, shuddering at the mere thought of one. As such, many did not share the excitement of Jamaican and British scientists over a recent announcement by the University of the West Indies (UWI) that a specimen of the Jamaican Giant Galliwasp — presumed extinct — will be going home to Jamaica on April 24, having been in the Hunterian Collection at the University of Glasgow, Scotland since 1888.

An official handover ceremony will celebrate the Giant Galliwasp making the Natural History Museum of Jamaica in Kingston its new home, where it will be made accessible to the public. UWI announced the repatriation of this extraordinary creature, housed in a glass stoppered jar and preserved in ethanol, on social media:

The university also noted that the return of this impressive lizard has added significance for Jamaica and the region: “This repatriation exercise is momentous as it is the first repatriation of a natural history specimen in the Caribbean. It symbolises an important milestone for scientific research, cultural heritage preservation in the region, and repatriation as part of the reparatory justice for the Caribbean.”

UWI Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles, who chairs the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission, added, “By returning the galliwasp to its rightful place, we take a small but significant step towards laying the foundation for a regional and international discussion on repatriation.”

The Jamaican Giant Galliwasp (Celestus occiduus is — or was — no ordinary lizard. Suspected to be extinct, it was endemic to Jamaica and part of a family of anguid lizards known as diploglossines, which live in South and Central America and the Caribbean.

Experts believe this particular specimen would have been collected in the 1850s. As explained by one Scottish scientist, its demise is related to the colonial sugarcane plantation system and the British colonisers’ introduction of the predatory mongoose from India to the island in 1872:

The large, glossy, forked tongue reptile, which lived in swamps and marshes as well as rocky areas and forests, might still perhaps be found in Jamaica's Negril Morass or Black River Morass, but none have yet been discovered. Its diet consisted of fruit, fish, worms, insects and small lizards. It was a burrower and produced live young.

Although not venomous, galliwasps, in general, are often feared. One well-known superstition is that if the reptile bites someone, he/she must reach water before it does: if the galliwasp reaches water first, the person dies; if the person reaches water first, the galliwasp dies.

As Jamaican biologist Damion Whyte explains, there are 11 species of galliwasps globally, 10 of which are endemic, living only in Jamaica. Another species, the endangered Giant Hispaniola Galliwasp, lives in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and faces similar challenges to its Jamaican counterpart.

A Jamaican biologist shared a story on the repatriation, urging Jamaicans to put aside their fear and prejudices:

The return of this fascinating creature is not merely symbolic. In a WhatsApp conversation with Global Voices, biologist Damion Whyte welcomed the move, pointing out that the repatriation will encourage further much-needed research on galliwasps, helping to raise local awareness of the animal and the need to respect and protect wildlife.

It could also serve as an empowering boost for the scientific and museum community in developing countries like Jamaica. “I expect it would put some life in our museums that are underfunded,” Whyte said. “We have collections that are struggling to be preserved and need funding. There is this notion that third-world countries like Jamaica can't take care of their own natural heritage; hence, the developed countries should keep these valuable collections. I would love for us to prove them wrong.”

Adding that talk of the Jamaican Giant Galliwasp has now reached the international community, with many recognising that there are several artefacts in private collections and museums that people are unaware of, Whyte added, “It now starts the conversation on whether these artefacts should be returned to where they got them from.”

Apart from its scientific value, Whyte noted the cultural and historical significance of the repatriation, which the Repair Campaign, a social movement for reparatory justice guided by the CARICOM Reparations Commission, recognised in a tweet on X (formerly Twitter):

The University of the West Indies clarified that the repatriation is part of a much larger project “within the sphere of the execution of a 2019 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between The UWI and University of Glasgow (UofG), aimed at fostering collaboration in research and education and addressing the historical legacies of colonialism.”

UWI said one of the most tangible outcomes of the MOU is the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research (GCCDR), which “funds research projects that advance development goals in the Caribbean, facilitates academic partnerships, and raises global awareness about the ongoing impact of historical slavery.”

The university stressed that “this repatriation not only represents the return of a valuable piece of Jamaican heritage, but also signifies a commitment by the UofG to rectify past injustices and ensure Caribbean ownership of its scientific and cultural treasures.”

Taking it one step further, the University of Glasgow has been examining the Giant Galliwasp specimen and many other artefacts contained in its Hunterian Collection as part of its “Curating Discomfort” project launched two years ago. The project faces up to some difficult truths regarding many museum displays of items taken, collected, or stolen by colonial powers by helping us to understand that “museums have perpetuated ideologies of white supremacy.”

Explaining that the British Empire “used these ideologies to justify the enslavement and colonisation of peoples and lands around the world,” it added that museums developed within this context and “remain spaces that celebrate and memorialise colonial systems.” Collections, displays and labels, it said, are therefore, “a political act that [has] legacies rooted in colonialism.”

Meanwhile, Jamaica's Culture Minister Olivia Grange has once again called for reparations, which a June 2023 report estimated could amount to as much as GBP 18.6 trillion (about USD 23 trillion):

While monetary compensation is a critical aspect of the reparations movement in the Caribbean, the repatriation of artefacts — including, for the first time in the region, a Caribbean biological specimen — forms part of the complex and continuously evolving reparations process.

Although there is no update on Jamaica's request five years ago for the repatriation of Taino artefacts, it is believed to be in process. Hope also remains alive that the Jamaican Giant Galliwasp could be rediscovered, as was another famous lizard, the critically endangered Jamaican Iguana, back in the 1990s.

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