Eugene Marais, a distinguished scientist, lawyer, journalist and poet, was born in a farming community near Pretoria in 1872. Educated in the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Cape Province, he made journalism his first career.
By 1890, he was editor of Land en Volk, and two years later, at the age of 21, he owned it.
In 1894 he married, only to see his wife die the following the year after the birth of his son. This was a loss from which he never really recovered.
Shortly afterwards, he moved to London where he studied law and medicine. By the time of his admission to the bar at the Inner Temple, the Boer War was in progress, and Marais returned to Africa to assist his countrymen.
In 1910, he went to Johannesburg to establish himself as an advocate, but increasing depression of spirits drove him to retreat to Waterberg, a mountain area in northern Transvaal. Settling near a large group of chacma baboons, he became the first man to conduct a prolonged study of the primates in the wild. It was during this period that he produced My Friends the Baboons, and gathered the material for the more scientific The Soul of the Ape.
My Friends the Baboons is that rare piece of writing; a paper of scientific observation which could reduce anyone of compassion to tears – for who cannot be moved by the final chapter when a tribe of baboons appeals to Marais and his companion to save their young?
Marais, journalist, poet, scholar and scientist, spent more than three years studying the chacma baboons in the wild, and his notes, comments and conclusions in this pioneering work have been a source of inspiration since they were written. At the time he began his work, he was able to study a troop of baboons who had never known man. The four-year Boer War removed the settlers, and the baboon troop led an undisturbed life, with no fear of their modern and most devastating foe: human farmers.
Marais was indeed fortunate in being able to watch this animal society in a natural environment. His observations of what they did and how they organised their lives together, how they expressed themselves, and above all, their ‘instinctive’ reactions, made Marais draw conclusions on the development of animal and human psyche which caused, and continue to cause, debate in scientific circles, and which are as pertinent today as they ever were.
The keenness of his observations is magnificently matched by his compassionate prose. Even the weight of his conclusions is expressed in language so eloquently moving that the very style of the book makes it a treasure to read and possess.
Doris Lessing wrote in The New Statesman:
“He offers a vision of nature as a whole, whose parts obey different time-laws, move in affinities and linkages we could learn to see: parts making wholes on their own level, but seen by our divisive brains as a multitude of individualities, a flock of birds, a species of plant or beast. We are just at the start of an understanding of the heavens as a web of interlocking clocks, all differently set: an understanding that is not intellectual, but woven into experience. Marais brings this thought down into the plain, the hedgerow, the garden.”
He returned to Pretoria to practise law, to resume his animal studies, and to write poetry in Afrikaans. (He could write in English, but preferred not to, because of his horror of British behaviour during the Bower War.)
In 1926, the year after he had published a definitive text on his original and ground-breaking conclusions about the white ant, the famous European writer Maurice Maeterlinck stole half of Marais’ work, and published it as his own. Out of dignity, Marais refused to sue.
This period of Marais’ life is discussed in some detail in Robert Ardrey’s introduction to The Soul of the Ape.
After years of increasing difficulties with morphine, depression and anxiety, he took his own life in 1936.
1 / The Habits of the Baboons
2 / The Distribution of the Baboon
3 / The Baboons of Doornhoek
4 / Birth pain in Man and Animal
5 / Behaviour and Character of Young Baboons
6 / Friendship Between Men and Baboons
7 / Baboons and Human Beings
8 / Reason in Apes and Lower Species of Animal
9 / Law and Government among the Baboons
10 / Death Among Baboons