Remarkable People

ID #5218

Eugene Marais, Lawyer, Naturalist, Poet and Author, South Africa.

Eugène Nielen Marais (1871–1936) was a lawyer, naturalist, poet and writer. The progenitors of the name were Charles and Claude Marais from Paris.

Marais was born in Pretoria, the thirteenth and last child of Jan Marais and Catharina 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 age sixteen. After leaving school he worked in Pretoria as a legal clerk and then as a journalist before becoming owner of a newspaper called Land en Volk. He became deeply involved in local politics. He began taking opiates at an early age and graduated to morphine (then considered to be a non-habit forming and a safer drug) soon thereafter. He became addicted, which ruled his affairs and actions throughout his life. When asked why he took  drugs, he pleaded ill-health, insomnia and, later, the death of his 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 his use of drugs was experimental and influenced by the philosophy of de Quincey. 

He married Aletta Beyers who died a year later, eight days after the birth of their son and 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 and qualified as an advocate.

When the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out he was paroled 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 Boer Commandos via Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). However, he was struck down by malaria before the supplies could be delivered.

From 1905 he studied nature in the Waterberg north of Pretoria where he wrote about the animals he observed. His study of termites led him to conclude that the colony should be considered as a single organism. Marais also studied black mambas, spitting cobras and puff adders in the Waterberg. He observed a troop of baboons at length and wrote My Friends the Baboons and The Soul of the Ape as a result. He is acknowledged as father of the scientific study of the behavior of animals (ethiology).

As the leader of the Second Afrikaans Language Movement, Marais preferred to write in Afrikaans and his work was only translated late in his life or after his death. Southern Africa is the only place in the world where Afrikaans is spoken, although it is understood by many Dutch and Flemish. His book "Die Siel van die Mier" was plagiarized by Nobel-laureate Maurice Maeterlinck who published "The Life of the White Ant" in 1926, falsely claiming many of Marais' ideas as his own. Maeterlinck was able to do so because he was Belgian and, athough his mother tongue was French, he was fluent in Dutch. Marais contemplated legal action against Maeterlinck but gave up in the face of the cost and logistics involved.

Social anthropologist Robert Ardrey said in his introduction to The Soul of the Ape (1969) that "As a scientist he was unique, supreme in his time, a worker in a science unborn." He also refers to Marais’ work in 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 it 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 borrowed a shotgun and shot himself in the chest. The wound was not fatal so Marais placed the end of the weapon in his mouth and pulled the trigger. This occurred on the farm Pelindaba. For those familiar with the dark moods of certain of Marais' poems there is a black irony here -- Pelindaba is a Zulu word which means "the end of the business" – although the more common interpretation is "Place of great gatherings".

Marais' work as a naturalist, although by no means trivial, gained less attention and appreciation than his contribution as a literalist. He discovered the Waterburg cycad which was named Encephalartos eugene-maraisii after him He is among the greatest of the Afrikaner poets and remains one of its most popular.

Opperman described him as the first professional Afrikaner poet. Along with J.H.H. de Waal and G.S. Preller, he was a leading light in the Second Afrikaans (language) Movement after the Second Anglo-Boer War. Some of his finest poems deal with the wonders of life and nature but he also wrote about inexorable death. He was (sometimes) a religious man and a Biblical influence is obvious in some of his work. Although an Afrikaner patriot, Marais was sympathetic to the cultural values of the Transvaal blacks which can be seen in poems such as "Die Dans van die Reën". The following translation of Marais' "Winternag" is by J. W. Marchant:

"Winter's Night"

O the small wind is frigid and spare
and bright in the dim light and bare
as wide as God's merciful boon
the veld lies in starlight and gloom
and on the high lands
spread through burnt bands
the grass-seed, astir, is like beckoning hands.

O East-wind gives mournful measure to song
Like the lilt of a lovelorn lass who's been wronged
In every grass fold
bright dewdrop takes hold
and promptly pales to frost in the cold!


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Last update: 2014-05-14 17:00
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.9

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