1731: Brazilian termites abide by court order

In 1713, a group of Franciscan monks in north-eastern Brazil lodged a complaint with their local bishop. A swarm of termites had taken up residence in their monastery, St Anthony’s, and chewed their way through food, furniture, floorboards and foundations. Attempts to drive away the termites had failed and St Anthony’s was now on the brink of collapse.

The friars asked their bishop to excommunicate the hungry insects before it was too late. The bishop agreed to submit the matter to an ecclesiastical court, which heard the matter over several days.

As was usual in legal action against animals, the termites did not attend but were granted human legal representation. Their lawyer, whose name is not recorded, argued that his clients were resident in the area long before the monks; not only that, as God’s creatures they were entitled to foraging rights. Further, the lawyer suggested that the termites’ busy activities:

“…some might contend, hath proven them more industrious and attentive to their labours than those who stand to accuse them [the monks].”

The court eventually reached a compromise, ruling that the monks set aside timberland and ordering the termites to relocate there forthwith. According to the chronicles of St Anthony, cited by Evans, the court’s ruling was:

“…read officially before the hills of the termites [then] they all came out and marched in columns to the place assigned… conclusive proof that the Almighty endorsed the decision of the court.”

Sources: Bernardes, Nova Floresta &tc., vol.5, 1747; Edward P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, 1906. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.