When Captain Gerilleau received instructions to take his new gunboat, the Benjamin Constant, to Badama on the Batemo arm of the Guaramadema and there assist the inhabitants against a plague of ants, he suspected the authorities of mockery. His promotion had been romantic and irregular, the affections of a prominent Brazilian lady and the captain’s liquid eyes had played a part in the process, and the Diario and O Futuro had been lamentably disrespectful in their comments. He felt he was to give further occasion for disrespect.
He was a Creole, his conceptions of etiquette and discipline were pure-blooded Portuguese, and it was only to Holroyd, the Lancashire engineer who had come over with the boat, and as an exercise in the use of English — his “th” sounds were very uncertain — that he opened his heart.
“It is in effect,” he said, “to make me absurd! What can a man do against ants? Dey come, dey go.”
“They say,” said Holroyd, “that these don’t go. That chap you said was a Sambo ——”
“Zambo; — it is a sort of mixture of blood.”
“Sambo. He said the people are going!”
The captain smoked fretfully for a time. “Dese tings ‘ave to happen,” he said at last. “What is it? Plagues of ants and suchlike as God wills. Dere was a plague in Trinidad — the little ants that carry leaves. Orl der orange-trees, all der mangoes! What does it matter? Sometimes ant armies come into your houses — fighting ants; a different sort. You go and they clean the house. Then you come back again; — the house is clean, like new! No cockroaches, no fleas, no jiggers in the floor.”
“That Sambo chap,” said Holroyd, “says these are a different sort of ant.”
The captain shrugged his shoulders, fumed, and gave his attention to a cigarette.
Afterwards he reopened the subject. “My dear ‘Olroyd, what am I to do about dese infernal ants?”
The captain reflected. “It is ridiculous,” he said. But in the afternoon he put on his full uniform and went ashore, and jars and boxes came back to the ship and subsequently he did. And Holroyd sat on deck in the evening coolness and smoked profoundly and marvelled at Brazil. They were six days up the Amazon, some hundreds of miles from the ocean, and east and west of him there was a horizon like the sea, and to the south nothing but a sand-bank island with some tufts of scrub. The water was always running like a sluice, thick with dirt, animated with crocodiles and hovering birds, and fed by some inexhaustible source of tree trunks; and the waste of it, the headlong waste of it, filled his soul. The town of Alemquer, with its meagre church, its thatched sheds for houses, its discoloured ruins of ampler days, seemed a little thing lost in this wilderness of Nature, a sixpence dropped on Sahara. He was a young man, this was his first sight of the tropics, he came straight from England, where Nature is hedged, ditched, and drained, into the perfection of submission, and he had suddenly discovered the insignificance of man. For six days they had been steaming up from the sea by unfrequented channels; and man had been as rare as a rare butterfly. One saw one day a canoe, another day a distant station, the next no men at all. He began to perceive that man is indeed a rare animal, having but a precarious hold upon this land.
He perceived it more clearly as the days passed, and he made his devious way to the Batemo, in the company of this remarkable commander, who ruled over one big gun, and was forbidden to waste his ammunition. Holroyd was learning Spanish industriously, but he was still in the present tense and substantive stage of speech, and the only other person who had any words of English was a negro stoker, who had them all wrong. The second in command was a Portuguese, da Cunha, who spoke French, but it was a different sort of French from the French Holroyd had learnt in Southport, and their intercourse was confined to politenesses and simple propositions about the weather. And the weather, like everything else in this amazing new world, the weather had no human aspect, and was hot by night and hot by day, and the air steam, even the wind was hot steam, smelling of vegetation in decay: and the alligators and the strange birds, the flies of many sorts and sizes, the beetles, the ants, the snakes and monkeys seemed to wonder what man was doing in an atmosphere that had no gladness in its sunshine and no coolness in its night. To wear clothing was intolerable, but to cast it aside was to scorch by day, and expose an ampler area to the mosquitoes by night; to go on deck by day was to be blinded by glare and to stay below was to suffocate. And in the daytime came certain flies, extremely clever and noxious about one’s wrist and ankle. Captain Gerilleau, who was Holroyd’s sole distraction from these physical distresses, developed into a formidable bore, telling the simple story of his heart’s affections day by day, a string of anonymous women, as if he was telling beads. Sometimes he suggested sport, and they shot at alligators, and at rare intervals they came to human aggregations in the waste of trees, and stayed for a day or so, and drank and sat about, and, one night, danced with Creole girls, who found Holroyd’s poor elements of Spanish, without either past tense or future, amply sufficient for their purposes. But these were mere luminous chinks in the long grey passage of the streaming river, up which the throbbing engines beat. A certain liberal heathen deity, in the shape of a demi-john, held seductive court aft, and, it is probable, forward.
But Gerilleau learnt things about the ants, more things and more, at this stopping-place and that, and became interested in his mission.
“Dey are a new sort of ant,” he said. “We have got to be — what do you call it? — entomologie? Big. Five centimetres! Some bigger! It is ridiculous. We are like the monkeys —— sent to pick insects . . . But dey are eating up the country.”
He burst out indignantly. “Suppose — suddenly, there are complications with Europe. Here am I— soon we shall be above the Rio Negro — and my gun, useless!”
He nursed his knee and mused.
“Dose people who were dere at de dancing place, dey ‘ave come down. Dey ‘ave lost all they got. De ants come to deir house one afternoon. Everyone run out. You know when de ants come one must — everyone runs out and they go over the house. If you stayed they’d eat you. See? Well, presently dey go back; dey say, ‘The ants ‘ave gone.’ . . . De ants ’aven’t gone. Dey try to go in-de son, ‘e goes in. De ants fight.”
“Swarm over him?”
“Bite ’im. Presently he comes out again — screaming and running. He runs past them to the river. See? He gets into de water and drowns de ants — yes.” Gerilleau paused, brought his liquid eyes close to Holroyd’s face, tapped Holroyd’s knee with his knuckle. “That night he dies, just as if he was stung by a snake.”
“Poisoned — by the ants?”
“Who knows?” Gerilleau shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps they bit him badly . . . When I joined dis service I joined to fight men. Dese things, dese ants, dey come and go. It is no business for men.”
After that he talked frequently of the ants to Holroyd, and whenever they chanced to drift against any speck of humanity in that waste of water and sunshine and distant trees, Holroyd’s improving knowledge of the language enabled him to recognise the ascendant word Saüba, more and more completely dominating the whole.
He perceived the ants were becoming interesting, and the nearer he drew to them the more interesting they became. Gerilleau abandoned his old themes almost suddenly, and the Portuguese lieutenant became a conversational figure; he knew something about the leaf-cutting ant, and expanded his knowledge. Gerilleau sometimes rendered what he had to tell to Holroyd. He told of the little workers that swarm and fight, and the big workers that command and rule, and how these latter always crawled to the neck and how their bites drew blood. He told how they cut leaves and made fungus beds, and how their nests in Caracas are sometimes a hundred yards across. Two days the three men spent disputing whether ants have eyes. The discussion grew dangerously heated on the second afternoon, and Holroyd saved the situation by going ashore in a boat to catch ants and see. He captured various specimens and returned, and some had eyes and some hadn’t. Also, they argued, do ants bite or sting?
“Dese ants,” said Gerilleau, after collecting information at a rancho, “have big eyes. They don’t run about blind — not as most ants do. No! Dey get in corners and watch what you do.”
“And they sting?” asked Holroyd.
“Yes. Dey sting. Dere is poison in the sting.” He meditated. “I do not see what men can do against ants. Dey come and go.”
“But these don’t go.”
“They will,” said Gerilleau.
Past Tamandu there is a long low coast of eighty miles without any population, and then one comes to the confluence of the main river and the Batemo arm like a great lake, and then the forest came nearer, came at last intimately near. The character of the channel changes, snags abound, and the Benjamin Constant moored by a cable that night, under the very shadow of dark trees. For the first time for many days came a spell of coolness, and Holroyd and Gerilleau sat late, smoking cigars and enjoying this delicious sensation. Gerilleau’s mind was full of ants and what they could do. He decided to sleep at last, and lay down on a mattress on deck, a man hopelessly perplexed, his last words, when he already seemed asleep, were to ask, with a flourish of despair, “What can one do with ants? . . . De whole thing is absurd.”
Holroyd was left to scratch his bitten wrists, and meditate alone.
He sat on the bulwark and listened to the little changes in Gerilleau’s breathing until he was fast asleep, and then the ripple and lap of the stream took his mind, and brought back that sense of immensity that had been growing upon him since first he had left Para and come up the river. The monitor showed but one small light, and there was first a little talking forward and then stillness. His eyes went from the dim black outlines of the middle works of the gunboat towards the bank, to the black overwhelming mysteries of forest, lit now and then by a fire-fly, and never still from the murmur of alien and mysterious activities . . .
It was the inhuman immensity of this land that astonished and oppressed him. He knew the skies were empty of men, the stars were specks in an incredible vastness of space; he knew the ocean was enormous and untamable, but in England he had come to think of the land as man’s. In England it is indeed man’s, the wild things live by sufferance, grow on lease, everywhere the roads, the fences, and absolute security runs. In an atlas, too, the land is man’s, and all coloured to show his claim to it — in vivid contrast to the universal independent blueness of the sea. He had taken it for granted that a day would come when everywhere about the earth, plough and culture, light tramways and good roads, an ordered security, would prevail. But now, he doubted.
This forest was interminable, it had an air of being invincible, and Man seemed at best an infrequent precarious intruder. One travelled for miles, amidst the still, silent struggle of giant trees, of strangulating creepers, of assertive flowers, everywhere the alligator, the turtle, and endless varieties of birds and insects seemed at home, dwelt irreplaceably — but man, man at most held a footing upon resentful clearings, fought weeds, fought beasts and insects for the barest foothold, fell a prey to snake and beast, insect and fever, and was presently carried away. In many places down the river he had been manifestly driven back, this deserted creek or that preserved the name of a casa, and here and there ruinous white walls and a shattered tower enforced the lesson. The puma, the jaguar, were more the masters here . . .
Who were the real masters?
In a few miles of this forest there must be more ants than there are men in the whole world! This seemed to Holroyd a perfectly new idea. In a few thousand years men had emerged from barbarism to a stage of civilisation that made them feel lords of the future and masters of the earth! But what was to prevent the ants evolving also? Such ants as one knew lived in little communities of a few thousand individuals, made no concerted efforts against the greater world. But they had a language, they had an intelligence! Why should things stop at that any more than men had stopped at the barbaric stage? Suppose presently the ants began to store knowledge, just as men had done by means of books and records, use weapons, form great empires, sustain a planned and organised war?
Things came back to him that Gerilleau had gathered about these ants they were approaching. They used a poison like the poison of snakes. They obeyed greater leaders even as the leaf-cutting ants do. They were carnivorous, and where they came they stayed . . .
The forest was very still. The water lapped incessantly against the side. About the lantern overhead there eddied a noiseless whirl of phantom moths.
Gerilleau stirred in the darkness and sighed. “What can one do?” he murmured, and turned over and was still again.
Holroyd was roused from meditations that were becoming sinister by the hum of a mosquito.
The next morning Holroyd learnt they were within forty kilometres of Badama, and his interest in the banks intensified. He came up whenever an opportunity offered to examine his surroundings. He could see no signs of human occupation whatever, save for a weedy ruin of a house and the green-stained facade of the long-deserted monastery at Mojû, with a forest tree growing out of a vacant window space, and great creepers netted across its vacant portals. Several flights of strange yellow butterflies with semi-transparent wings crossed the river that morning, and many alighted on the monitor and were killed by the men. It was towards afternoon that they came upon the derelict cuberta.
She did not at first appear to be derelict; both her sails were set and hanging slack in the afternoon calm, and there was the figure of a man sitting on the fore planking beside the shipped sweeps. Another man appeared to be sleeping face downwards on the sort of longitudinal bridge these big canoes have in the waist. But it was presently apparent, from the sway of her rudder and the way she drifted into the course of the gunboat, that something was out of order with her. Gerilleau surveyed her through a field-glass, and became interested in the queer darkness of the face of the sitting man, a red-faced man he seemed, without a nose — crouching he was rather than sitting, and the longer the captain looked the less he liked to look at him, and the less able he was to take his glasses away.
But he did so at last, and went a little way to call up Holroyd. Then he went back to hail the cuberta. He ailed her again, and so she drove past him. Santa Rosa stood out clearly as her name.
As she came by and into the wake of the monitor, she pitched a little, and suddenly the figure of the crouching an collapsed as though all its joints had given way. His hat fell off, his head was not nice to look at, and his body flopped lax and rolled out of sight behind the bulwarks.
“Caramba!” cried Gerilleau, and resorted to Holroyd forthwith.
Holroyd was half-way up the companion. “Did you see dat?” said the captain.
“Dead!” said Holroyd. “Yes. You’d better send a boat aboard. There’s something wrong.”
“Did you — by any chance — see his face?”
“What was it like?”
“It was — ugh! — I have no words.” And the captain suddenly turned his back on Holroyd and became an active and strident commander.
The gunboat came about, steamed parallel to the erratic course of the canoe, and dropped the boat with Lieutenant da Cunha and three sailors to board her. Then the curiosity of the captain made him draw up almost alongside as the lieutenant got aboard, so that the whole of the Santa Rosa, deck and hold, was visible to Holroyd.
He saw now clearly that the sole crew of the vessel was these two dead men, and though he could not see their faces, he saw by their outstretched hands, which were all of ragged flesh, that they had been subjected to some strange exceptional process of decay. For a moment his attention concentrated on those two enigmatical bundles of dirty clothes and laxly flung limbs, and then his eyes went forward to discover the open hold piled high with trunks and cases, and aft, to where the little cabin gaped inexplicably empty. Then he became aware that the planks of the middle decking were dotted with moving black specks.
His attention was riveted by these specks. They were all walking in directions radiating from the fallen man in a manner — the image came unsought to his mind — like the crowd dispersing from a bull-fight.
He became aware of Gerilleau beside him. “Capo,” he said, “have you your glasses? Can you focus as closely as those planks there?”
Gerilleau made an effort, grunted, and handed him the glasses.
There followed a moment of scrutiny. “It’s ants,” said the Englishman, and handed the focused field-glass back to Gerilleau.
His impression of them was of a crowd of large black ants, very like ordinary ants except for their size, and for the fact that some of the larger of them bore a sort of clothing of grey. But at the time his inspection was too brief for particulars. The head of Lieutenant da Cunha appeared over the side of the cuberta, and a brief colloquy ensued.
“You must go aboard,” said Gerilleau.
The lieutenant objected that the boat was full of ants.
“You have your boots,” said Gerilleau.
The lieutenant changed the subject. “How did these en die?” he asked.
Captain Gerilleau embarked upon speculations that Holroyd could not follow, and the two men disputed with a certain increasing vehemence. Holroyd took up the field-glass and resumed his scrutiny, first of the ants and then of the dead man amidships.
He has described these ants to me very particularly.
He says they were as large as any ants he has ever seen, black and moving with a steady deliberation very different from the mechanical fussiness of the common ant. About one in twenty was much larger than its fellows, and with an exceptionally large head. These reminded him at once of the master workers who are said to rule over the leaf-cutter ants; like them they seemed to be directing and co-ordinating the general movements. They tilted their bodies back in a manner altogether singular as if they made some use of the fore feet. And he had a curious fancy that he was too far off to verify, that most of these ants of both kinds were wearing accoutrements, had things strapped about their bodies by bright white bands like white metal threads . . .
He put down the glasses abruptly, realising that the question of discipline between the captain and his subordinate had become acute.
“It is your duty,” said the captain, “to go aboard. It is my instructions.”
The lieutenant seemed on the verge of refusing. The head of one of the mulatto sailors appeared beside him.
“I believe these men were killed by the ants,” said Holroyd abruptly in English.
The captain burst into a rage. He made no answer to Holroyd. “I have commanded you to go aboard,” he screamed to his subordinate in Portuguese. “If you do not go aboard forthwith it is mutiny — rank mutiny. Mutiny and cowardice! Where is the courage that should animate us? I will have you in irons, I will have you shot like a dog.” He began a torrent of abuse and curses, he danced to and fro. He shook his fists, he behaved as if beside himself with rage, and the lieutenant, white and still, stood looking at him. The crew appeared forward, with amazed faces.
Suddenly, in a pause of this outbreak, the lieutenant came to some heroic decision, saluted, drew himself together and clambered upon the deck of the cuberta.
“Ah!” said Gerilleau, and his mouth shut like a trap. Holroyd saw the ants retreating before da Cunha’s boots. The Portuguese walked slowly to the fallen man, stooped down, hesitated, clutched his coat and turned him over. A black swarm of ants rushed out of the clothes, and da Cunha stepped back very quickly and trod two or three times on the deck.
Holroyd put up the glasses. He saw the scattered ants about the invader’s feet, and doing what he had never seen ants doing before. They had nothing of the blind movements of the common ant; they were looking at him — as a rallying crowd of men might look at some gigantic monster that had dispersed it.
“How did he die?” the captain shouted.
Holroyd understood the Portuguese to say the body was too much eaten to tell.
“What is there forward?” asked Gerilleau.
The lieutenant walked a few paces, and began his answer in Portuguese. He stopped abruptly and beat off something from his leg. He made some peculiar steps as if he was trying to stamp on something invisible, and went quickly towards the side. Then he controlled himself, turned about, walked deliberately forward to the hold, clambered up to the fore decking, from which the sweeps are worked, stooped for a time over the second man, groaned audibly, and made his way back and aft to the cabin, moving very rigidly. He turned and began a conversation with his captain, cold and respectful in tone on either side, contrasting vividly with the wrath and insult of a few moments before. Holroyd gathered only fragments of its purport.
He reverted to the field-glass, and was surprised to find the ants had vanished from all the exposed surfaces of the deck. He turned towards the shadows beneath the decking, and it seemed to him they were full of watching eyes.
The cuberta, it was agreed; was derelict, but too full of ants to put men aboard to sit and sleep: it must be towed. The lieutenant went forward to take in and adjust the cable, and the men in the boat stood up to be ready to help him. Holroyd’s glasses searched the canoe.
He became more and more impressed by the fact that a great if minute and furtive activity was going on. He perceived that a number of gigantic ants — they seemed nearly a couple of inches in length — carrying oddly-shaped burthens for which he could imagine no use — were moving in rushes from one point of obscurity to another. They did not move in columns across the exposed places, but in open, spaced-out lines, oddly suggestive of the rushes of modern infantry advancing under fire. A number were taking cover under the dead man’s clothes, and a perfect swarm was gathering along the side over which da Cunha must presently go.
He did not see them actually rush for the lieutenant as he returned, but he has no doubt they did make a concerted rush. Suddenly the lieutenant was shouting and cursing and beating at his legs. “I’m stung!” he shouted, with a face of hate and accusation towards Gerilleau.
Then he vanished over the side, dropped into his boat, and plunged at once into the water. Holroyd heard the splash.
The three men in the boat pulled him out and brought him aboard, and that night he died.
Holroyd and the captain came out of the cabin in which the swollen and contorted body of the lieutenant lay and stood together at the stern of the monitor, staring at the sinister vessel they trailed behind them. It was a close, dark night that had only phantom flickerings of sheet lightning to illuminate it. The cuberta, a vague black triangle, rocked about in the steamer’s wake, her sails bobbing and flapping, and the black smoke from the funnels, spark-lit ever and again, streamed over her swaying masts.
Gerilleau’s mind was inclined to run on the unkind things the lieutenant had said in the heat of his last fever.
“He says I murdered ’im,” he protested. “It is simply absurd. Someone ’ad to go aboard. Are we to run away from these confounded ants whenever they show up?”
Holroyd said nothing. He was thinking of a disciplined rush of little black shapes across bare sunlit planking.
“It was his place to go,” harped Gerilleau. “He died in the execution of his duty. What has he to complain of? Murdered! . . . But the poor fellow was — what is it? — demented. He was not in his right mind. The poison swelled him . . . U’m.”
They came to a long silence.
“We will sink that canoe — burn it.”
The inquiry irritated Gerilleau. His shoulders went up, his hands flew out at right angles from his body. “What is one to do?” he said, his voice going up to an angry squeak.
“Anyhow,” he broke out vindictively, “every ant in dat cuberta! — I will burn dem alive!”
Holroyd was not moved to conversation. A distant ululation of howling monkeys filled the sultry night with foreboding sounds, and as the gunboat drew near the black mysterious banks this was reinforced by a depressing clamour of frogs.
“What is one to do?” the captain repeated after a vast interval, and suddenly becoming active and savage and blasphemous, decided to burn the Santa Rosa without further delay. Everyone aboard was pleased by that idea, everyone helped with zest; they pulled in the cable, cut it, and dropped the boat and fired her with tow and kerosene, and soon the cuberta was crackling and flaring merrily amidst the immensities of the tropical night. Holroyd watched the mounting yellow flare against the blackness, and the livid flashes of sheet lightning that came and went above the forest summits, throwing them into momentary silhouette, and his stoker stood behind him watching also.
The stoker was stirred to the depths of his linguistics. “Saüba go pop, pop,” he said, “Wahaw” and laughed richly.
But Holroyd was thinking that these little creatures on the decked canoe had also eyes and brains.
The whole thing impressed him as incredibly foolish and wrong, but — what was one to do? This question came back enormously reinforced on the morrow, when at last the gunboat reached Badama.
This place, with its leaf-thatch-covered houses and sheds, its creeper-invaded sugar-mill, its little jetty of timber and canes, was very still in the morning heat, and showed never a sign of living men. Whatever ants there were at that distance were too small to see.
“All the people have gone,” said Gerilleau, “but we will do one thing anyhow. We will ‘oot and vissel.”
So Holroyd hooted and whistled.
Then the captain fell into a doubting fit of the worst kind. “Dere is one thing we can do,” he said presently, “What’s that?” said Holroyd.
“‘Oot and vissel again.”
So they did.
The captain walked his deck and gesticulated to himself. He seemed to have many things on his mind. Fragments of speeches came from his lips. He appeared to be addressing some imaginary public tribunal either in Spanish or Portuguese. Holroyd’s improving ear detected something about ammunition. He came out of these preoccupations suddenly into English. “My dear ‘Olroyd!” he cried, and broke off with “But what can one do?”
They took the boat and the field-glasses, and went close in to examine the place. They made out a number of big ants, whose still postures had a certain effect of watching them, dotted about the edge of the rude embarkation jetty. Gerilleau tried ineffectual pistol shots at these. Holroyd thinks he distinguished curious earthworks running between the nearer houses, that may have been the work of the insect conquerors of those human habitations. The explorers pulled past the jetty, and became aware of a human skeleton wearing a loin cloth, and very bright and clean and shining, lying beyond. They came to a pause regarding this . . .
“I ‘ave all dose lives to consider,” said Gerilleau suddenly.
Holroyd turned and stared at the captain, realising slowly that he referred to the unappetising mixture of races that constituted his crew.
“To send a landing party — it is impossible — impossible. They will be poisoned, they will swell, they will swell up and abuse me and die. It is totally impossible . . . If we land, I must land alone, alone, in thick boots and with my life in my hand. Perhaps I should live. Or again — I might not land. I do not know. I do not know.”
Holroyd thought he did, but he said nothing.
“De whole thing,” said Gerilleau suddenly, “‘as been got up to make me ridiculous. De whole thing!”
They paddled about and regarded the clean white skeleton from various points of view, and then they returned to the gunboat. Then Gerilleau’s indecisions became terrible. Steam was got up, and in the afternoon the monitor went on up the river with an air of going to ask somebody something, and by sunset came back again and anchored. A thunderstorm gathered and broke furiously, and then the night became beautifully cool and quiet and everyone slept on deck. Except Gerilleau, who tossed about and muttered. In the dawn he awakened Holroyd.
“Lord!” said Holroyd, “what now?”
“I have decided,” said the captain.
“What — to land?” said Holroyd, sitting up brightly.
“No!” said the captain, and was for a time very reserved. “I have decided,” he repeated, and Holroyd manifested symptoms of impatience.
“Well — yes,” said the captain, “I shall fire de big gun!”
And he did! Heaven knows what the ants thought of it, but he did. He fired it twice with great sternness and ceremony. All the crew had wadding in their ears, and there was an effect of going into action about the whole affair, and first they hit and wrecked the old sugar-mill, and then they smashed the abandoned store behind the jetty. And then Gerilleau experienced the inevitable reaction.
“It is no good,” he said to Holroyd; “no good at all. No sort of bally good. We must go back — for instructions. Dere will be de devil of a row about dis ammunition — oh! de devil of a row! You don’t know, ‘Olroyd . . . ”
He stood regarding the world in infinite perplexity for a space.
“But what else was there to do?” he cried.
In the afternoon the monitor started down stream again, and in the evening a landing party took the body of the lieutenant and buried it on the bank upon which the new ants have so far not appeared . . .
I heard this story in a fragmentary state from Holroyd not three weeks ago.
These new ants have got into his brain, and he has come back to England with the idea, as he says, of “exciting people” about them “before it is too late.” He says they threaten British Guiana, which cannot be much over a trifle of a thousand miles from their present sphere of activity, and that the Colonial Office ought to get to work upon them at once. He declaims with great passion: “These are intelligent ants. Just think what that means!”
There can be no doubt they are a serious pest, and that the Brazilian Government is well advised in offering a prize of five hundred pounds for some effectual method of extirpation. It is certain too that since they first appeared in the hills beyond Badama, about three years ago, they have achieved extraordinary conquests. The whole of the south bank of the Batemo River, for nearly sixty miles, they have in their effectual occupation; they have driven men out completely, occupied plantations and settlements, and boarded and captured at least one ship. It is even said they have in some inexplicable way bridged the very considerable Capuarana arm and pushed many miles towards the Amazon itself. There can be little doubt that they are far more reasonable and with a far better social organisation than any previously known ant species; instead of being in dispersed societies they are organised into what is in effect a single nation; but their peculiar and immediate formidableness lies not so much in this as in the intelligent use they make of poison against their larger enemies. It would seem this poison of theirs is closely akin to snake poison, and it is highly probable they actually manufacture it, and that the larger individuals among them carry the needle-like crystals of it in their attacks upon men.
Of course it is extremely difficult to get any detailed information about these new competitors for the sovereignty of the globe. No eye-witnesses of their activity, except for such glimpses as Holroyd’s, have survived the encounter. The most extraordinary legends of their prowess and capacity are in circulation in the region of the Upper Amazon, and grow daily as the steady advance of the invader stimulates men’s imaginations through their fears. These strange little creatures are credited not only with the use of implements and a knowledge of fire and metals and with organised feats of engineering that stagger our northern minds — unused as we are to such feats as that of the Saübas of Rio de Janeiro, who in 1841 drove a tunnel under the Parahyba where it is as wide as the Thames at London Bridge — but with an organised and detailed method of record and communication analogous to our books. So far their action has been a steady progressive settlement, involving the flight or slaughter of every human being in the new areas they invade. They are increasing rapidly in numbers, and Holroyd at least is firmly convinced that they will finally dispossess man over the whole of tropical South America.
And why should they stop at tropical South America?
Well, there they are, anyhow. By 1911 or thereabouts, if they go on as they are going, they ought to strike the Capuarana Extension Railway, and force themselves upon the attention of the European capitalist.
By 1920 they will be half-way down the Amazon. I fix 1950 or ‘60 at the latest for the discovery of Europe.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15