The Empire of the Ants – H.G.Wells

H.G. Wells is well known for his novel “War of the Worlds”. But he wrote many short stories too. Here is one of them. It is called The Empire of the Ants and it is shortened and simplified for upper-intermediate students.

Warning: This story is not suitable for young learners!!

The Empire of the Ants

The Empire of the Ants - free graded reader for upper-intermediate learners of English

The Empire of the Ants – free graded reader

When Captain Gerilleau received instructions to take his boat called ‘Benjamin Constant’  to Badama to help the people there to fight with the ants, he thought that the authorities were joking.

“What can a man do against ants? They come and they go,” the captain was complaining to the English engineer.

“They say,” said Holroyd, “that these don’t go. The man said the people were going!”

The captain smoked for some time. “I think that these things have to happen,” he said at last. ” It is God’s will. Sometimes a lot of ants come into your house. You leave and they clean the house. Then you come back again and the house is clean, like new! No cockroaches, no dirt anywhere.”

“That man,” said Holroyd, “says these are a different sort of ants.”

The captain smoked his cigarette and he came back to the topic only later.

“My dear Holroyd, what am I to do about these ants? It is ridiculous,” he said and their conversation finished there.

But in the afternoon the captain went ashore and bought everything that was necessary for their journey. And by the evening the ship was ready to go.

The next morning they started their journey up the river. The river was large and there were only a few people and villages around it. During the day the weather was incredibly hot, but if you took off your clothes the mosquitos bit you. The journey was really boring and as the crew of the boat were international Holroyd didn’t have many people to speak to.


So he spent most of his time with the captain. Sometimes they passed their time by shooting at crocodiles and when they stopped in one village for a night they went dancing with the local girls.

And during the dance Gerilleau learnt more about the ants.

“They are a new sort of ants,” he told Holroyd the following day. “They are five centimetres long! Some are bigger! It is ridiculous. We are like the monkeys. We are sent to pick insects… But they are eating up the country.”

“Those people who we met at the village, they have come down. They have lost all they had. The ants came to their house one afternoon. Everyone ran out. You know when the ants come everyone runs out and the ants go over the house. If you stayed they would eat you. See? Well, a few days later the people came back and they thought that the ants had gone. But they hadn’t gone. The son went in and the ants fought with him. ”

“Did they go all over him?”

“They bit him. He went out again. He was screaming and running. He dived into the river. He got into the water and drowned all the ants.” Gerilleau paused and then he looked at Holroyd. „But that night he died, just as if he was stung by a snake.”

“Was he poisoned by the ants?” Holdroy asked.

“Who knows?” Gerilleau shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps they bit him badly. When I came into the Navy I joined to fight with men. But to fight with ants…  It is no business for men.”

The closer they came to the village of Badama the more they spoke about the ants. Two days the captain, Holroyd and the  Lieutenant da Cunha spent arguing whether ants have eyes. In the end they went ashore and they caught several kinds of ants and they found out that some species had eyes and some didn’t.

A bit later they stopped at a lonely farm and here Gerilleau learnt some new facts.

“These ants,” he told Holroyd,  “have big eyes. They don’t run about as most ants do. No! They get in corners and watch what you do.”

“And do they sting?” asked Holroyd.

“Yes. They sting. There is poison in the sting. I do not see what men can do against the ants. They 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. There was only the forest and when Holroyd saw it, he started to wonder whether man will ever control this huge and wild place.

A few days later the captain learnt more about these ants. They used a poison like the poison of snakes. They obeyed greater leaders. They ate meat, and where they came they stayed…

Gerilleau was more and more unhappy. “What can we do?” he asked again and again.


The next morning Holroyd learnt they were forty kilometres from Badama, and he became more interested in the banks of the river. He went to the shore whenever there was an opportunity. But he couldn’t see any signs of human activity anywhere. It was in the afternoon that they came upon the abandoned small boat.

She did not at first appear to be abandoned; both her sails were set, and there was the figure of a man sitting on the board. Another man appeared to be sleeping face downwards on the bridge these big boats have. But it was soon clear, from the way she went,that something was wrong with her. Gerilleau looked at her through a field-glass, and saw that the sitting man had a dark face and there was no nose. 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 called up Holroyd. The boat was called „Santa Rosa“. As they passed the boat she moved a little, and suddenly the sitting men collapsed. His hat fell off, his head was not nice to look at.

“Caramba!” cried Gerilleau.”Did you see that?” he asked Holroyd.

“Dead!” said Holroyd. “Yes. You’d better send some men to the boat. 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 started to give orders to his men.

Lieutenant da Cunha and three sailors took a boat and came to „Santa Rosa“.

As their ship came closer, Holroyd noticed that in the middle of the boat there were some black shapes that moved. These dots were moving to and from the bodies.

He became aware of Gerilleau beside him. “Captain,” he said. “Can you focus your glasses on the black things there?”

Gerilleau tried, and handed him the glasses.

“It’s ants,” said the Holroyd, and handed the focused field-glass back to Gerilleau.

They looked like normal black ants but they were bigger. And some of the bigger ants had something gray on their bodies. Lieutenant da Cunha came with the boat to „Santa Rosa“ and looked inside.

“You must go aboard,” said Gerilleau.

The lieutenant protested that the boat was full of ants.

“You have your boots,” said Gerilleau.

The lieutenant changed the subject. “How did the men die?” he asked.

Captain Gerilleau began to speak Portuguese and Holroyd didn’t understand the two men so he stopped listening. He took up the field-glass and studied the ants and then the dead men.

He has described these ants to me very precisely.

He says they were larger than any ants he has ever seen, black and moving differently than common ants. They seemed that they know what they are doing. About one in twenty was much larger than its fellows, and it had a large head. These seemed to be directing and co-ordinating the general movements. And he thought, even though he he was too far off to be sure, that most of these ants of both kinds were wearing some clothes.

He put down the glasses quickly, because the captain and lieutenant started to quarrel.

“It is your duty,” said the captain, “to go aboard! It is my order!”

The lieutenant seemed that he would refuse.

“I believe these men were killed by the ants,” said Holroyd in English.

The captain got really angry. He didn’t answer Holroyd. “I have commanded you to go aboard,” he screamed to his Lieutenant in Portuguese. “If you do not go aboard now it is mutiny! Where is your courage? I will send you to prison!“ The captain was jumping angrily on the board shouting some more bad words at his lieutenant. He shook his fists, he behaved as if beside himself with anger, and the lieutenant, stood  there looking at him.

Suddenly, the lieutenant saluted and climbed into the „Santa Rosa“.

“Ah!” said Gerilleau, and his mouth shut. Holroyd saw the ants running away before da Cunha’s boots. The Portuguese walked slowly to the fallen man, bent down, hesitated, took his coat and turned him over. A large group of ants ran out of the clothes, and da Cunha stepped back very quickly.

Holroyd put up the glasses. He saw the ants about the Lieutanant’s feet, and they were behaving very strangely. They were looking at him.

“How did he die?” the captain shouted.

Holroyd understood the Portuguese to say the body was too much eaten to tell.

“What is there in front of you?” asked Gerilleau.

The lieutenant walked a few steps, and began his answer in Portuguese. He stopped suddenly and swept something off his leg. He made some strange steps and went quickly to the side of the boat. Then he went to the second man, looked at him, and returned to the middle of „Santa Rosa“. He turned and began a conversation with his captain but Holroyd understood only small parts of it.

He took the field-glass, and was surprised to find the ants had disappeared from all the visible surfaces of the boat. He turned towards the shadows and it seemed to him they were full of watching eyes.

„Santa Rosa“, it was agreed; was abandoned, but too full of ants to put men on it: it must be pulled. The lieutenant tied it to the big ship. Holroyd’s glasses watched the ants.

He saw that a number of enormous ants carried strange things. It seemed that the ants were running from one hiding point  to another. They seemed like modern soldiers advancing under fire. A number of them were hiding under the dead man’s clothes, and the biggest group was gathering along the side over which da Cunha must go if he wants to go back to their ship.

Holroyd did not see them attack the lieutenant, but he has no doubt they were organised. Suddenly the lieutenant was shouting beating at his legs. “I’m stung!” he shouted, with a face of hate towards Gerilleau.

Then he jumped over the side, dropped into his boat, and dived at once into the water. The three men in the boat pulled him out and brought him to the big ship, and that night he died.


Holroyd and the captain came out of the cabin in which the lieutenant died and stood together looking at „Santa Rosa“. It was a dark night.

Gerilleau’s was still thinking about the unkind things the lieutenant had said in the heat of his last fever.

“He says I murdered him,” he protested. “It is simply absurd. Someone had to go there. Are we going to run away from these ants whenever they show up?”

Holroyd said nothing.

“It was his place to go,” continued Gerilleau. “He died in his duty. Murdered!… But the poor man was…. He was not in his right mind. The poison was killing him… U’m.”

There was a long silence.

“We will burn that boat.”

“And then?” Holroyd asked.

The question upset Gerilleau. “What can we do?” he said. “Anyhow, every ant in that boat will die!–I will burn them alive!”

Then the captain became active and decided to burn the „Santa Rosa“ immediately. Everyone was pleased by that idea and they helped happily. And soon the boat was burning in the middle of the tropical night.

„What can we do?“ This question came back the following day, when at last the ship arrived at Badama.

This place, with houses which had their roofs from leaves and its old sugar-mill was very quiet in the morning heat. There was no sign of a living man. If there were any ants they were too far and too small to see.

“All the people have gone,” said Gerilleau, “but we will do one thing anyhow. We will hoot and whistle.”

So Holroyd hooted and whistled.

Nothing happened and the captain suddenly didn’t know what to do. “There is one more thing we can do,” he said in the end. “What’s that?” asked Holroyd.

“‘Hoot and whistle again.”

So they did and nothing happened.

The captain walked up and down talking to himself. Then he suddenly stopped and turned to Holroyd. “What can we do?”

In the end they took a boat and the field-glasses, and went closer to the shore in to examine the place. They saw a number of big ants, who seemed to be watching them. Gerilleau tried to shoot them but it was useless. They went with their ship a bit further and they found a human skeleton. They came to a pause regarding this…

“I have all those lives to consider,” said Gerilleau suddenly.

Holroyd turned and looked at the captain. After a while he realised that he was speaking about his crew.

“To send them to the village –it is impossible–impossible. They will be killed. It is totally impossible… If we land, I must land alone, alone, in thick boots and with my life in my hands. Perhaps I should live. Or again–I might not land. I do not know. I do not know.”

Holroyd said nothing.

They went up and down the river and watched the village from different sides. The captain’s indecisions became terrible. They spent the whole day like this. At night there was a storm. In the morning the sky was blue when Gerilleau woke Holroyd.

“I have decided,” said the captain.

“What–to land?” said Holroyd, sitting up quickly.

“No!” said the captain. “I have decided,” he repeated, “I will fire the big gun!_”

And he did! Heaven knows what the ants thought of it, but he did. He fired it twice. The first shot destroyed the old sugar-mill and the second an old shop. And then Gerilleau realised that it was useless.

“It is no good,” he said to Holroyd; “no good at all. We must go back–for instructions. But what else could we do?”

In the afternoon the ship started down stream again, and in the evening they landed and took the body of the lieutenant and buried it on the bank upon which the new ants have not appeared yet…


I heard this story in from Holroyd about 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: “These are intelligent ants. Just think what that means!”

There can be no doubt they are a serious problem, and that the Brazilian Government should offer a prize of five hundred pounds for some method to get rid of them. It is certain too that since they first appeared in the hills beyond Badama, about three years ago, they have spread really quickly. They took the whole of the south bank of the Batemo River, for nearly sixty miles; there are no  men there any more. The ants took all the plantations and villages. It is even said they have somehow bridged the big Capuarana river and moved many miles to the Amazon. There can be little doubt that they are far more clever than any other ants. They are organised into single nation. But what is worst is the fact that they use their poison against bigger enemies. They probably manufacture the poison and then make little needles from it which they carry and use to attack large creatures.

Of course it is extremely difficult to get any detailed information about these ants.  No one saw what they do. And those who saw them often didn’t survive. But the legends say that these little creatures use tools, fire and metals. It is said that they build complicated structures in the forest and that they have a method to record and communicate which is similar to our books. They slowly take more and more land and people either die or run away. Their numbers grow quickly and Holroyd at least is sure that they will kill all men in the whole of tropical South America soon.

And why should they stop at tropical South America?

In ten year they will be half-way down the Amazon. And in 40 or 50 years they will discover Europe.


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