Annotated watercolour sketches by Santiago Savage, 1857-1858, being a record of Charles Ledger's journeys in Peru and Chile

Silk of the Andes: Knowing, Exploiting and Conserving the Vicuña in Colonial and Postcolonial Peru

Welcome to the LNUC Concurrences Seminar Series in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies!

Helen Cowie is Professor of History at the University of York. Her research focuses on the history of animals and the history of natural history. She is author or Conquering Nature in Spain and its Empire, 1750-1850 (2011), Exhibiting Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Empathy, Education, Entertainment (2014) and Llama (2017). Her most recent project, ‘Victims of Fashion: Animal Commodities in Victorian Britain’, was published in 2021 by Cambridge University Press.  

Silk of the Andes: Knowing, Exploiting and Conserving the Vicuña in Colonial and Postcolonial Peru

In 1825, as the Hispanic American Wars of Independence drew to a close, the Liberator, Simón Bolivar, signed a law banning the killing of vicuñas in Peru. Designed to protect this vulnerable species from over-hunting, the new law made it illegal to kill vicuñas to obtain their wool. It stipulated, instead, that prospective vicuña hunters must catch the animals alive, using bolas (three stone balls attached to a piece of rope), shear them without harming them and then release them back into the wild. The aim of the law was to ensure the survival of a beautiful, elegant camelid, whose form would soon appear on Peru’s national flag.

This lecture focuses on shifting human relationships with the vicuña, a wild relation of the alpaca highly prized for its silky fleece. Carefully managed by the Incas, vicuñas were slaughtered indiscriminately by the Spanish conquistadors and their descendants and were subject to some of the earliest colonial conservation legislation. They subsequently became targets to domestication and acclimatisation in the eighteenth century – both in the Americas and in Europe; the New Granadan polymath, Francisco Jose de Caldas, outlined a scheme to transfer vicuñas from Peru to Bogotá, while the Peruvian priest, Juan Pablo Cabrera, succeeded in the 1840s in interbreeding vicuñas and alpacas at his estate in Macusani. Exploring the changing cultural and economic significance of the vicuña, the lecture considers the different ways in which humans have understood and used the species and asks what these shifting approaches tell us about evolving conceptions of American wildlife. I emphasise in particular how indigenous knowledge about vicuñas has been both appropriated and ignored by Spanish and creole writers, shaping colonial and postcolonial policies for their management.

The seminar will be held in English. 

Please send an email to if you want to participate via Zoom. 

Linnaeus University Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies