In 1811 the first alpaca to be exhibited in Britain was put on show at Edward Cross’s menagerie in London. The animal was ‘remarkably tame’ and had ‘perforations in its ears in which ornamental rings had been placed’. It soon proved a great favourite with the British public, who admired its ‘graceful attitudes, gentle disposition and playful manners’ and expressed particular interest in its wool, which was thick, glossy and ‘about eighteen inches long’.
The arrival of the alpaca in the years following Spanish American independence sparked interest in Britain in the possibility of naturalising the species and using its wool for textile manufacture. Over the next four decades these plans were put into effect as increasing numbers of alpaca were imported into Europe. Several treatises were published on the subject of alpaca acclimatisation, some advising their naturalisation in Britain, where the Scottish Highlands were identified as the most promising region for the experiment, others suggesting their introduction to the colonies, particularly Australia. A daring operation to smuggle alpacas out of Peru (which prohibited their exportation in 1845) was conducted in 1859 by Charles Ledger, who succeeded in transporting 276 of the animals to New South Wales.
This paper examines attempts to naturalise the alpaca in the British Empire and situates these within the wider contexts of natural history, animal acclimatisation, commercial exchange and national/regional identity. In the nineteenth century Britain made concerted efforts to appropriate useful plants and animals and acclimatise them within its own colonies. Focusing on one notable example of ‘economic zoology’, the case of the alpaca, I study the networks of knowledge that facilitated the transfer of alpacas from one continent to another and consider how British subjects in places as diverse as Bradford, Liverpool, Sydney and Arequipa promoted and benefited from the naturalisation scheme. I position alpaca appropriation within a wider discourse of animal ‘improvement’, bio-piracy and imperial adventure.