Eugene Marais image
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Born in January 9, 1871 / Died in March 29, 1936 / South Africa / English


Eugène Nielen Marais (pronounced /'ju?d?i?n 'ni?l?n m?'re?/; 9 January 1871 - 29 March 1936) was a South African lawyer, naturalist, poet and writer.

His early years, before and during the Boer War

Marais was born in Pretoria, the thirteenth and last child of his parents, Jan Christiaan Nielen Marais and Catharina Helena Cornelia van Niekerk. He attended school in Pretoria, Boshof and Paarl and much of his early education was in English, as were his earliest poems. He matriculated at the age of sixteen. After leaving school he worked in Pretoria as a legal clerk and then as a journalist before becoming owner (at the age of twenty) of a newspaper called Land en Volk (lit. Land and (the Afrikaner) People). He involved himself deeply in local politics. He began taking opiates at an early age and graduated to morphine (then considered to be non-habitforming and a safer drug) very soon thereafter. He became addicted and his addiction ruled his affairs and actions to a greater or lesser extent throughout his life. When asked for the reasons for taking drugs, he variously pleaded ill health, insomnia and, later, the death of his young wife as a result of the birth of his only child. Much later, he blamed accidental addiction while ill with malaria in Mozambique. Some claim that his use of drugs was experimental and influenced by the philosophy of de Quincey.He married Aletta Beyers but she died from puerperal fever a year later, eight days after the birth of their son, Marais' only child. In 1897?still in his mid-twenties?he went to London, initially to read medicine. However, under pressure from his friends, he entered the Inner Temple to study law. (He qualified as an advocate). When the Boer War broke out in 1899, he was put on parole as an enemy alien in London. During the latter part of the war he joined a German expedition that sought to ship ammunition and medicines to the Boer Commandos via Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). However, he was struck down in this tropical area by malaria and before the supplies could be delivered to the Boers, the war ended.

After the War

From 1905 he studied nature in the Waterberg ("Water mountain"), an area of wilderness north of Pretoria and wrote in his native Afrikaans about the animals he observed. His studies of termites led him to the conclusion that the colony should be considered as a single organism. In the Waterberg Marais also studied the black mamba, spitting cobra and puff adder.He also observed a specific troop of baboons at length, from which numerous magazine articles and the books "My Friends the Baboons" and "The Soul of the Ape" originated. He is acknowledged as the father of the scientific study of the behaviour of animals, known as Ethology. As the leader of the Second Afrikaans Language Movement, Marais preferred to write in Afrikaans and his work was translated into various international languages either late in his life or after his death. Southern Africa is the only place in the world where Afrikaans is spoken to any degree, although it can be understood by Dutch and Flemish people. His book "Die Siel van die Mier" (lit. "The soul of the ant" but usually given in English as the "Soul of the White Ant") was plagiarized by Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck, who published "The Life of the White Ant" in 1926, falsely claiming many of Marais' revolutionary ideas as his own. Maeterlinck was able to do this because he was Belgian and, though his mother tongue was French, he was fluent in Dutch, from which Afrikaans was derived. It was common at the time for worthy articles published in Afrikaans to be reproduced in Flemish and Dutch magazines and journals. Marais contemplated legal action against Maeterlinck but gave up the idea in the face of the costs and logistics involved.

The social anthropologist Robert Ardrey said in his introduction to The Soul of the Ape, published in 1969, that "As a scientist he was unique, supreme in his time, yet a worker in a science unborn." He also refers to Marais work at length in his work ' African Genesis.' Marais was a long-term morphine addict and suffered from melancholy, insomnia, depression and feelings of isolation. The theft of his ideas weighed heavily on his mind and some say this caused his final demise, although others argue that the issue had an energizing and invigorating effect. Certainly it brought him back into the public eye in a favorable way. In 1936, deprived of morphine for some days, he finally borrowed a shotgun (on the pretext of killing a snake) and shot himself in the chest. The wound was not fatal and Marais therefore placed the end of the weapon in his mouth and pulled the trigger. This occurred on the farm Pelindaba, belonging to his friend, Gustav S. Preller. For those who are familiar with the dark moods of certain of Marais' poems there is a black irony here; in Zulu, Pelindaba means "the end of the business" - although the more common interpretation is "Place of great gatherings". Marais and his wife Lettie are buried in the Heroes' Acre, Pretoria.


Marais' work as a naturalist, although by no means trivial (he was one of the first scientists to practice ethology and was repeatedly acknowledged as such by Robert Ardrey and others), gained less public attention and appreciation than his contributions as a literalist. He discovered the Waterburg Cycad which was named after him (Encephalartos eugene-maraisii). He is amongst the greatest of the Afrikaner poets and remains one of the most popular, although his output was not large. Opperman described him as the first professional Afrikaner poet; Marais believed that craft was as important as inspiration for poetry. Along with J.H.H. de Waal and G.S. Preller, he was a leading light in the Second Afrikaans (language) Movement in the period immediately after the Second Boer War, which ended in 1902. Some of his finest poems deal with the wonders of life and nature but he also wrote about inexorable Death. Marais was isolated in some of his beliefs, he was a self-confessed pantheist and claimed that the only time he entered a church was for weddings. Although an Afrikaner patriot, Marais was sympathetic to the cultural values of the black tribal peoples of the Transvaal; this is seen in poems such as "Die Dans van die Reën" (The dance of the rain). The progenitors of the Marais name in the region were Charles and Claude Marais, from the Paris region of France. The Marais name has retained its original French spelling and pronunciation in South Africa. ..