Picnic in Pridade no Maranhao: The Legal Empire of the Ants


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“The ant is knowing and wise, but he doesn’t know enough to take a vacation” – Clarence Day


Does anybody know a good lawyer?

The notion of an “anti-colonial” ant is a bit counterintuitive, as they pretty much have a lock on the concept of the colony as a super-organism operating as a unified entity, collectively working together to support the greater ant good, as well as the fact that they themselves have colonized every landmass that is remotely hospitable, and together form in the neighborhood of 25% of terrestrial (animal) biomass.  Basically, don’t fuck with the ants.  The unwary assume that the only ants that pose any real existential threat to humans are the giant, mistakenly irradiated kind that stomp cities or those unpleasant, but generally non-lethal fire ants.  It is at our own peril that we overlook those ants who have learned to work the human legal system.  While you’re at it, be afraid of any animal, mineral, or vegetable that knows a thing or two about jurisprudence or has the gumption to hire a savvy attorney.  Just saying.   At the opening of the 18th Century, the Friars Minor of Saint Anthony (a Franciscan order) of the province of Pridade no Maranhao in Brazil unwisely took the local ants to court for violations of their property rights.  The ants were ready for them.

Now, it’s a little odd, given that Saint Francis of Assisi is generally regarded as the patron saint of animals that monks of his order elected to prosecute their eusocial Brazilian neighbors, but as it turns out while St. Frank was a big fan of finned, feathered, and furry critters, dude passionately hated ants.  Not very saintly it seems, but I don’t exactly have the official theological credentials to judge.  If it were up to me, William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson would be Doctors of the Church.  All a matter of taste.  At any rate, St. Francis of Assisi disliked ants.  Blessed Brother Giles of Assisi, one of St. Francis’ original companions noted his distaste (as recorded in the 14th Century work Little Flowers of St. Francis, presumed to have been written by an obscure Italian Franciscan monk named Ugolino Brunforte), remarking “the ant was not so pleasing to St. Francis as other living things because of the great diligence she hath in gathering together and storing up, in the time of summer, a treasure of grain for the winter; but he was wont to say that the birds pleased him much more, because they laid not up one day for the next. But yet the ant teacheth us that we ought not to be slothful in the summer of this present life, so that we be not found empty and barren in the winter of the last day and judgment” (Assisi per Brunforte, 1910 ed., p166).  While he obviously thought the ants had an important lesson about sloth to teach us, he regarded their hoarding as an affront to reliance upon God’s providence.  Hey, what can I say, theological arguments get funky sometimes.

Of course, Saint Francis had long been deader than a mackerel when the legal tribulations of the Brazilian ants arose, so we can’t be sure what sort of amicus curiae he would have submitted.  As it so happens, as early as 1549 A.D., the Franciscans were busy setting up missions in northeastern Brazil, catechizing the natives, and tending to the souls of Portuguese settlers.  Their efforts were later overshadowed by the much more efficiently organized Jesuits.  Those guys really knew a thing or two about managing an apostolate.  But in the early 1700’s, the Franciscans ran into a problem with their monastery in Pridade no Maranhao.  They had dug some nice cool cellars beneath the foundations to store staple foods like flour.  Well, the local ants already had a solid foothold in the area, “It happened, according to the account of a monk of the said order in that province, that the ants, which thereabouts are both numerous, large, and destructive, had, in order to enlarge the limits of their subterranean empire, undermined the cellars of the Brethren, burrowing beneath the foundations, and thus weakening the walls which daily threatened ruin. Over and above the said offence was another, they had burglariously entered the stores, and carried off the flour which was kept for the service of the community. Since the hostile multitudes were united and indefatigable night and day, the monks were brought into peril of famine, and were driven to seek a remedy for this intolerable nuisance: and since all the means to which they resorted were unavailing, the unanimity of the multitude being quite insurmountable, as a last resource, one of the friars, moved by a superior instinct (we can easily believe that), gave his advice that, returning to the spirit of humility and simplicity which had qualified their seraphic founder, who termed all creatures his brethren — brother Sun, brother Wolf, sister Swallow, etc. — they should bring an action against their sisters the Ants before the divine tribunal of Providence, and should name counsel for defendants and plaintiffs; also that the bishop should, in the name of supreme Justice, hear the case and give judgment” (Baring-Gould, 1869, p65-66).

If you happen to want to chase down the trial records, one can check P. Manoel Bernardes in his “Nova Floresta” (Lisboa, 1728), M. Emile Agnel among his “Curiosites Judicaires et Historiques”, or M. Menabrea’s paper entitled “Proces fait aux Animaux,” in the twelfth volume of the Transactions of the Chambery Society, for which there really aren’t English translations, but hey, maybe your Latin, French, or Portuguese is up to snuff.  Everyone does seem to agree that the ecclesiastical trial of the Brazilian ants proceeded apace.  The Friars Minor of Saint Anthony were nothing if not fair, and consequently assigned representation for both the plaintiffs (the monks) and the defendants (the ants).

Counsel for the plaintiffs argued that the holy brethren, who were trying their best to make a go of establishing themselves in the middle of an inhospitable jungle, gathered supplies from the faithful for the preservation of the community at great personal inconvenience whereas the ants “whose morals and manner of life were clearly contrary to the Gospel precepts, and were regarded with horror on that account by St. Francis, the founder of the confraternity, lived by fraud; and not content with acts of larceny, proceeded to open violence and endeavors to ruin the house” (Baring-Gould, 1869, p66).  Consequently the prosecution recommended some sort of divine pestilence or more instrumental means of extermination, the Good Lord failing an appropriate smiting.

Luckily, the ants happened to have been assigned a particularly diligent Franciscan attorney, who mounted a fascinating defense on behalf of his clients.  His reasoning before the ecclesiastical court was thus: (1) Having been endowed with life by their Creator, the ants were compelled to preserve said life with the instincts implanted in them; (2) the ants, in their displeasing behavior were actually displaying some rather admirable qualities – prudence, diligence, and charity in aiding each other – all cardinal virtues; (3) given the comparative size of ant vs. monk, their burdens often far surpassed that of the Franciscan brethren; (4) His clients had been in possession of the land long before the appellants (the monks) had established themselves there, and that seizure of said territory was by simple force on the part of the Franciscans, and concluded that while it might be justifiable that the plaintiffs defend their monastery by human means, that an appeal for retribution from the Creator was wholly unjustifiable.  Sentence was pronounced on 17th January, 1713.

The judge revolved the matter carefully in his mind, and finally rendered judgment, that the Brethren should appoint a field in their neighborhood, suitable for the habitation of the Ants, and that the latter should change their abode immediately, under pain of major excommunication. By such an arrangement both parties would be content and be reconciled; for the Ants must consider that the Monks had come into the land to sow there the seed of the Gospel, and that they themselves could easily obtain a livelihood elsewhere, and at less cost. This sentence having been given, one of the friars was appointed to convey it to the insects, which he did, reading it aloud at the openings of their burrows (Baring-Gould, 1869, p70).

We are not told whether the ants accepted the terms of arbitration, although one suspects they continued their fight against Portuguese colonial expansion, either overtly or covertly, and we similarly have no indication whether ants are especially concerned over the threat of excommunication.  It does seem curious, given Europeans were busy claiming everything in the world they could plant a flag on, that a linchpin of the Franciscan defense attorney’s argument was that the ants had been there first.  I imagine it was a bit troubling that the ants were essentially serving up their own version of colonialism in return.  And they have a few more million years’ experience at it than us.  Maybe our antipathy towards ants stems from the fact that they remind us of ourselves at our worst.  As physician, poet, and etymologist Lewis Thomas said, “Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. The families of weaver ants engage in child labor, holding their larvae like shuttles to spin out the thread that sews the leaves together for their fungus gardens. They exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television”.

Francis, of Assisi, Saint, 1182-1226. The Little Flowers of St. Francis. The Mirror of Perfection. The Life of St. Francis. London: Dent , 1910.
Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. Curiosities of Olden Times. London: J. T. Hayes, 1869.