A snake from west Africa

This rhinoceros viper specimen (scientific name: Bitis nasicornis) was donated by Roger Casement to the National Museum of Ireland. 


By Alan O’Connor

This specimen was donated by Roger Casement, Irish humanitarian and revolutionist.

brazen beast

 Fig. 1. Bitis nasicornis. Specimen number NH:1898.23.1.
          The top of the head faces the camera, on the top right-hand
             of the picture. The jar has a width of approximately 8.5 cm.

Description

In the National Museum of Ireland’s acquisition register (dated March 4th, 1898), the entry for specimen NH:1898.23, reads:

“Bitis nasicornis (Shaw); Given by Roger Casement (Consular Service, Niger Territory); Niger Territory, W. Africa; Mr Casement is now H.R.M. Consul (Lorenzo Marques) Delagoa Bay.”

The specimen is preserved in alcohol (70% Industrial Methylated Spirit), and stored in a glass jar.

The specimen

The rhinoceros viper (scientific name: Bitis nasicornis), is likely to be so-called for the unusual arrangement of scales on its snout. The purpose of these ‘horns’, just visible in Fig. 1, is as much a mystery today as it was in 1898. Members of this family of snakes (the Viperidae) are highly venomous.

The donor

Dublin-born Roger Casement (1864-1916) held senior British diplomatic roles in various parts of Africa and South America. He achieved international fame in the first decade of the twentieth century for exposing human rights violations in the Belgian Congo and South America, and was awarded a knighthood in 1911. Casement spent the first two years of World War 1 in Germany trying and failing to recruit a nationalist army from Irish prisoners of war. In 1916, he returned to Ireland, was captured, tried for treason, found guilty, and executed. Although his knighthood was officially revoked upon his conviction, he had already disowned the title.

Casement held a wide range of interests, including natural history. He donated several specimens to the natural history museum’s collections in the late 19th/early 20th century.

How did this specimen come to be in the museum?

Between 1892 and 1895 Casement operated as a customs officer for the British government in the Niger Coast Protectorate. The Protectorate was comprised of land on and around the Niger delta in modern Nigeria. In the course of his duties, he explored the region thoroughly, and he probably came into possession of the snake at this time.

Casement spent the first half of 1898 in Ireland and England, on leave from his consular position in Lorenzo Marques (now Maputo, capital of Mozambique). Amongst the places he stayed whilst on leave was an address on Lower Baggot Street, only a short walk from the Natural History Museum on Merrion Street. It was around this time that he made the donation of the rhinoceros viper.

Learn more …

This particular specimen is part of the museum’s scientific collection, and is not on public display. Unfortunately, the international reptile collection is currently inaccessible to the public, on balcony-levels that are closed because of a lack of emergency exits at the upper levels of this 150 year old building. A butterfly donated by Roger Casement can be found in one of the table cabinets at the rear of the Irish room (ground floor), facing the anenomes.

The information for this article was taken from the following sources:

Mattison, Chris (2002). The Encyclopedia of Snakes, Cassell Paperbacks, Cassell & Co.

Mitchell, Angus (2013). 16 Lives: Roger Casement, The O’Brien Press Ltd.

Acknowledgement:

Thanks to Nigel Monaghan for taking the photo, Fig. 1.