Exotic Animals in Georgian Britain

As foreign travel and trade became more widespread across the British Empire traders and sailors began to bring back home exotic animals that they found abroad. In the eighteenth century especially these animals began to be seen more frequently in the country and businesses grew up to supply animals to those who wished to keep, or exploit, them. The Georgian Menagerie by Christopher Plumb talks about this trade, the people involved and what happened to the animals.

I found this quite fascinating because I had no idea of the history of the importation of exotic animals into Britain. This book explores the businesses that set up to take advantage of the trade, those who sourced and transported the animals and also how they were housed and viewed when they reached Britain. It also looks at animals that were exploited for their body parts, those that ended up on the dinner tables of the wealthy and those that provided entertainment for the masses. The book then explores the movement from private collections of animals to the creation of zoos and zoological societies. I had no idea until I read this book about the wide range of animals that were imported or how relatively common it was in some sections of society to own such exotic creatures.

When exploring every aspect of this subject the author includes examples of people who were involved in the trade and tells their stories too. This is interesting but it does seem sometimes that the author was unable to prune their material and so we learn about every detail and we have very many examples. This does make the book quite dense reading in places and I thought that it would have benefitted from judicious editing. None of the material is boring but there is so much of it.

A quick warning too that the Georgian attitude towards animals is not that of the modern day. There are lots of examples of what we would definitely consider cruelty in this book but which were commonplace in the exotic animal trade. The author doesn’t hide the facts and doesn’t make much comment on most of what happened but some readers might find a few parts of this book a little upsetting.

I fiund this a fascinating subject and an interesting read.

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