Eugène Marais

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Eugène N. Marais
Eugène N. Marais – writer, lawyer and naturalist
Born (1871-01-09)9 January 1871
Died 29 March 1936(1936-03-29) (aged 65)
Farm near Pelindaba
Resting place Heroes' Acre, Pretoria, South Africa
Occupation Poet, naturalist, lawyer
Nationality South Africa
Ethnicity Afrikaner
Citizenship South Africa
Spouse Aletta Beyers (1871–1895)
Children Eugène Charles Gerard Marais

Eugène Nielen Marais (/ˈjuːn ˈnln mɑːˈr/; 9 January 1871 – 29 March 1936) was a South African lawyer, naturalist, poet and writer. He has been hailed as an intellectual genius and an Afrikaner hero.[1]

His early years, before and during the Boer War[edit]

Marais was born in Pretoria,[1] the thirteenth and last child of 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.[2] 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 (Country 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 safe 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.[3] 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.[4] (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[edit]

From 1905 Marais 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 ought to be considered as a single organism, a prescient insight that bided its time for generations before being elaborated by Richard Dawkins. In the Waterberg Marais also studied the black mamba, spitting cobra and puff adder.[5] Moreover, he observed a specific troop of baboons at length[6] and from these studies there sprang numerous magazine articles and the books "My Friends the Baboons" and "The Soul of the Ape". 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. 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 plagiarised 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.[citation needed]

Marais contemplated legal action against Maeterlinck but gave up the idea in the face of the costs and logistics involved.[7]

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 book "African Genesis."

There is evidence [8] that Marais' time and his researches in the wild northern mountains brought him great peace and joy and provided him with artistic inspiration. In the poem "Waar Tebes in die stil woestyn", he writes (as translated into English by J. W. Marchant) 'There would I know peace once more, where Tebes in the quiet desert lifts it mighty rockwork on high....'. (Tebus was one of the principal peaks of the area). That said, 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 energising and invigorating effect. Certainly it brought him back into the public eye in a favourable way.[9] 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 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[10]), gained less public attention and appreciation than his contributions as a literalist. He discovered the Waterberg Cycad, which was named after him (Encephalartos eugene-maraisii). He was the first person to study the behaviour of wild primates and his observations continue to be cited in contemporary evolutionary biology.[2] 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.[3] An assessment of Marais' status as an Afrikaner hero was published by historian Sandra Swart.[1] 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 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!

While the above translation is generally faithful, and is a fine poem in English, it does not quite capture the terse directness of the Afrikaans language, which makes Afrikaans poetry so bittersweet and evocative, striking straight to the heart and soul. Below follows a translation by Farrell Hope, which may closer reflect the original Afrikaans idiom.


O cold is the slight wind,
and keen.
Bare and bright in dim light
is seen,
as vast as the graces of God,
the veld's starlit and fire-scarred sod.
To the high edge of the lands,
spread through the scorched sands,
new seed-grass is stirring
like beckoning hands.

O mournful the tune
of the East-wind refrain,
like the song of a girl
who loved but in vain.
One drop of dew glistens
on each grass-blade's fold
and fast does it pale
to frost in the cold!

An English translation by At de Lange preserves the musicality of the poem quite well:[4]

"Winter's Night"

O cold is the windlet
and spare.
And bright in the dim-light
and bare,
as vast as God's mercy has bade,
lie the plains in starlight and shade.
And high in the ridges,
spreaded in burnt ditches,
are the grass plumes stirring
like beckoning hands.

O tune with grief laden
on the east wind's drone,
like the song of a maiden
in her love made alone.
In each grass blade's fold
a drop of dew gleams bold,
and it pales quickly
to frost in the cold!

Die Wonderwerker[edit]

This 2012 movie directed by Katinka Heyns explores his convalescence from malaria on a farm in the Waterberg.[5]

The Marais name[edit]

The progenitors of the Marais name in the region were Charles and Claude Marais, from the Paris region of France.[11] The Marais name has retained its original French spelling and pronunciation[citation needed] in South Africa.


  • The Soul of the White Ant, 1937, First published as Die Siel van die Mier in 1925, in Afrikaans
  • The Soul of the Ape, 1919, Published posthumously in 1969.


  1. ^ Ces Francais Qui Ont Fait L'Afrique Du Sud. Translation: The French People Who Made South Africa. Bernard Lugan. January 1996. ISBN 2841000869'
  2. ^ Opperman, D.J. Undated but probably 1962. Senior verseboek. Nasionale Boekhandel Bpk, Kaapstad. Negende druk, 185pp
  3. ^ Schirmer, P. 1980. The concise illustrated South African encyclopaedia. Central News Agency, Johannesburg. First edition, about 212pp.
  4. ^ Rousseau, Leon 1982, The Dark Stream—The Story of Eugène Marais. Jonathan Ball Publishers, JeppesTown.
  5. ^ Hogan, C.Michael, Mark L. Cooke and Helen Murray, The Waterberg Biosphere, Lumina Technologies Inc, 22 May 2006. [12]
  6. ^ Marais, Eugène, Soul of the Ape, Human and Rousseau (1937)
  7. ^ Ardrey, Robert The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations, 1966
  8. ^ Van Niekerk, H. L. Eugène Marais: Nuwe Feite en Nuwe Inligting 2010 (Eugène Marais: New Facts and New Insights)


  1. ^ a b Swart, Sandra (2004). "The construction of Eugène Marais as an Afrikaner hero" (PDF). Journal of Southern African Studies 30 (4): 847–867. 
  2. ^ Griffith, Jeremy (2013). Freedom Book 1. Part 4:7 Second Category of Thinker: Those who admitted the involvement of our moral instincts and corrupting intellect in producing the upset state of the human condition and who attempted to explain how those elements produced that upset psychosis. WTM Publishing & Communications. ISBN 978-1-74129-011-0. Retrieved 28 March 2013. 
  3. ^ Philip Copeman God's First Fisherman 2008, p. 44
  4. ^ De Lange, At. "'n Vertaalde gedig". Woes: Kreatiewe Platvorm vir Afrikaans. Kahuna Mobility Solutions. Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  5. ^ Spling

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