Ledger, Charles (1818-1905)

A farmer, adventurer and entrepreneur who played a key role in globalizing the breeding of Andean alpacas and the cultivation of a variety of the tree from which quinine is produced, Charles Ledger was born in London on 4 March 1818. He was the son of George Ledger, a mercantile broker, and his wife, Charlotte Warren.

Ledger travelled to Peru in 1836, a decade after the country became independent. He worked initially as a clerk for the firm Naylor’s, where he traded in wool, bark and copper. He later became an agent for the wool trade, collecting alpaca wool from indigenous alpaca farmers in the sierra. Ledger’s job consisted of ‘receiving from the Indians the different lots as they arrived from the interior…sorting the qualities and colours previous to packing…and finally shipping them, principally for account of Messrs. Christopher and James Rawdon, of Liverpool’ (‘Introduction of the Alpaca into Australia’, Bradford Observer, 29 September 1859). When not engaged in wool collecting, he was based in the southern Peruvian city of Tacna, where he married into a local family.

Knowing how popular alpaca wool was in Europe, Ledger conceived the idea of introducing the Peruvian animal to Britain or one of its colonies. In 1852 he visited Sydney (Australia) with a Peruvian friend to assess the feasibility of the scheme and returned to Peru convinced that the country was ideally suited to alpacas. The Peruvian Government had prohibited the export of living alpacas and vicuñas in 1845, so Ledger assembled a large flock of alpacas and llamas at his estate at Chulluncayani near Peru’s southern border and smuggled the animals across the Andes into the Argentine Confederation. After several months in Laguna Blanca accustoming the animals to their shipboard rations of dry alfalfa, Ledger re-crossed the Andes in perilous conditions and shipped them to Australia from the Chilean port of Caldera. Of the 322 animals stowed aboard the Salvadora in July 1858, 256 survived the voyage, arriving in Sydney four months later.

The story of Ledger’s quest to naturalise the alpaca reads like a classic Victorian adventure, replete with heroism, tragedy and adversity. At one point, two hundred of his flock perished from drinking the water of a lake infested with leeches. On another occasion he lost half of his animals in a violent storm in the Andes; on a third two hundred alpacas died due to ‘the negligence of one of the Indians’ (‘Mr Charles Ledger and his Alpaca Contract with New South Wales’, 25 September 1859). As well as enduring hardships, danger and deprivation in the sierra, Ledger was repeatedly hounded by the Peruvian and Bolivian authorities, who arrested him on two occasions and threatened to destroy his flock. With the courage and guile typical of the plucky Victorian entrepreneur, he managed, on both occasions, to outwit his captors, the first time by ‘exercising his medical skills in the cure of the wife of the detaining prefect’ and the second by slipping a dose of laudanum into his gaoler’s ‘grog’ (‘Introduction of the Alpaca into Australia’, Bradford Observer, 29 September 1859). Fellow Briton Henry Swinglehurst, who dined with Ledger in in 1859, wrote an effusive commentary on his journey, describing him as ‘Livingstone No. 2’ and claiming that ‘in other times [he] will be looked upon as a hero of trials that few have known and hardly any equalled’ (‘A Flock of Alpacas’, The Era, 31 October 1858). Another Briton, ‘Santiago Savage’, accompanied Ledger on his crossing of the Andes and chronicled his trials and tribulations in a series of eye-catching watercolours, now held at the State Library of New South Wales.

After such an onerous journey, Ledger doubtless expected a warm reception in New South Wales. In the event, however, the farmers who had six years earlier expressed interest in Ledger’s scheme now proved cautious about the experiment, declining to buy the alpacas at auction. The colonial government was forced to step in and purchase the animals, arranging pasture for them at Sophienburgh, Arthursleigh and Wingello respectively and paying Ledger an annual salary of £300 to superintend their continued care. Disappointed, Ledger nonetheless persisted with the experiment, and set to work inter-breeding his animals, hoping, by so doing, to obtain a superior strain of wool (he had been forced to supplement his original flock of alpacas with llamas, and intended, over several generations, to breed them back to pure alpaca). By 1861 the flock had been shorn several times and increased to 368 specimens – 112 more than had arrived in the Salvadora.

That, however, proved to be the high point for alpaca rearing in New South Wales. From a peak of 411 in July 1862, the number size of Ledger’s flock began to decline, and with it interest in the success of the scheme. A severe drought in 1862-3 inflicted severe mortality among the flock, particularly the nursing females, while an outbreak of mange broke further diminished their numbers. Ledger also confessed to breeding from the females at too young an age, thereby weakening their constitutions. With rumblings of discontent at the mounting cost of the venture, the state government dismissed Ledger as alpaca superintendent and acceded to calls to sell of the remaining alpacas to private buyers at a much reduced price. An attempted auction in 1864 failed to find suitable buyers, but in June 1866 the surviving 111 alpacas were sold without reserve to private owners, and dispersed across the state, putting an end to Ledger’s ambitious breeding programme.

Ledger, meanwhile, returned to Peru bankrupt and embittered, finding himself ‘at 48 years of age without one shilling of my own, having lost all I had in the realisation of an enterprise that I fondly hoped would have conferred great benefits on a thriving colony of my own country, and a just recompense for my capital and labour’ (‘Mr Ledger’s Alpacas’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April 1875). Despite – or perhaps because of – his disgruntlement, however, he did not remain inactive, but quickly embarked on a new scheme, this time to smuggle cinchona seeds out of Bolivia. Highly valued as an antidote for malaria, cinchona bark – source of the substance quinine – was native to the Andes, but strongly desired by colonial powers such as Britain, which wanted to settle in other malarial regions. Like alpacas, however, exports of the plant and the seeds were banned by Peru and Bolivia, providing a lucrative opportunity for smugglers. Ledger obtained the seeds of the plant from his servant, Manuel Incra Manamia, and succeeded in getting them out of the country. He offered them initially to the British government, which refused to buy them, and subsequently to the Dutch, who successfully cultivated them in the East Indian colony of Java. The seeds flourished in Java, and plantations of the species, later named Cinchona ledgeriana, provided much of the world’s quinine from 1900 to 1940.

After spending time in Uruguay and Argentina, Ledger returned to Australia in 1883. He died of old age at Leichhardt in Sydney on 19 May 1905 and was buried in the Independent section of Rookwood cemetery. Although awarded a pension of 1200 guilders by the Dutch government in 1895, his estate was valued at only £2, a reflection of the financial cost of the failed alpaca venture. Though unsuccessful at the time, however, Ledger’s contribution to Australian alpaca farming, has not been forgotten, and he now has a prestigious alpaca show named in his honour.

Sources: ‘Introduction of the Alpaca into Australia’, Bradford Observer, 29 September 1859; George Ledger, The Alpaca: Its Introduction into Australia and the Probabilities of its Acclimatisation There. A Paper read before the Society of Arts, London; The Era, 31 October 1858; ‘A Flock of Alpacas’, The Era, 31 October 1858; ‘Interesting Narrative Respecting Alpacas in Australia’, The Era, 20 February 1859; ‘The Alpacas and Mr C. Ledger’, The Era, 12 February 1860; ‘Mr Charles Ledger and his Alpaca Contract with New South Wales’, 25 September 1859; ‘The Alpacas’, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 1861; ‘The Management of the Alpacas’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 1864; ‘To the Editor of the Herald’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 March 1864; ‘The Alpacas’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1866; ‘Mr Ledger’s Alpacas’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April 1875; Annotated watercolour sketches by Santiago Savage, 1857-1858, being a record of Charles Ledger’s journeys in Peru and Chile. State Library of New South Wales MLMSS 630/1; http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ledger-charles-4004; https://www.facebook.com/Charles-Ledger-Alpaca-Show-16th-17th-September-2017-855356067912085/

Author: Helen Cowie

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