Eugene Marais orn in Pretoria,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. 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 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. He married Aletta Beyers but she died from puerperal fever a year later, eight days after the birth of their son.
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. rom 1905 Marais studied nature in the Waterberg ,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. Moreover, he observed a specific troop of baboons at length 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”
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.Marais contemplated legal action against Maeterlinck but gave up the idea in the face of the costs and logistics involved.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