“The Empire of the Ants” is a short story by the English author H. G. Wells (1866–1946), first published in the December 1905 edition of The Strand MagazineBritish weekly illustrated newspaper published from 1869 to 1932. and republished in The Country of the Blind and Other StoriesCollection of 33 short stories by H. G. Wells, first published in 1911. (1911). The story is told by an unnamed narrator who has heard the tale from Holroyd, the Lancashire engineer on a Brazilian gunship dispatched to investigate a plague of highly intelligent ants, and the risk they pose to humanity.
Guerillo, the Brazilian captain of the gunship Benjamin Constant, is ordered up the Amazon to assist the inhabitants of the town of Badama against a plague of ants, accompanied by his English engineer Holroyd. Before reaching their destination they encounter a cuberta[a]A cuberta is a large canoe with two masts and sails, used for transporting goods on the Amazon. with two mutilated dead men on board, infested with large black ants.
Captain Gerilleau orders his second in command, Lieutenant da Cunha, to board the vessel. There they find a species of large black ant that has evolved advanced intelligence, and has used it to make tools and manufacture poison, which the larger ants carry on their backs. The ants attack da Cunha, but although he manages to escape back to his ship, he dies painfully, apparently poisoned, that night. The next day, after burning the cuberta, the Benjamin Constant arrives off Badama. The town is deserted, all its inhabitants dead or dispersed. Fearing the ants and their poison, Gerilleau contents himself with firing “de big gun” at the town twice, with minimal effect. He then demands “what else was there to do?”, variants of which phrase are used throughout the story when discussing the ants, and returns downstream for further orders.
A postscript to the story recounts that Holroyd has returned to England to warn the authorities about the ants, before it is too late. The narrator, to whom he told his story three weeks earlier, agrees that the ants are a serious pest, even “new competitors for the sovereignty of the globe”, and that by 1950 or ’60 they will have reached Europe.
“The Empire of the Ants” is an elaboration on a theme Wells introduced his 1894 essay “The Extinction of ManPessimistic essay by H. G. Wells first published in 1894, about some of the ways humanity could become extinct.“, in which he outlined what he perceived to be the various threats to man’s continued existence. As well as a plague of ants, those threats included an invasion of some as yet unknown sea creature, developed in “The Sea RaidersShort story by H. G. Wells, first published in 1896, about a raid by an unknown species of octopus-like creatures on the south coast of England.” (1896), and the prospect of some new disease.
- H. G. Wells bibliographyList of publications written by H. G. Wells during the more than fifty years of his literary career.
- Full text of “The Empire of the Ants” at Project Gutenberg