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The Soul Of The White Ant
Evolutionary Developmental Biology of Invertebrates 6. Andreas Wanninger. Marais is known to all Afrikaans-speaking South Africans as a writer of short stories and verse. He himself, however, would wish to be remembered for his lifelong study of termites and apes. He began life after leaving college as a journalist, then studied medicine for four years, but eventually took up law and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple. A scholar and a man of culture, he chose nevertheless to live for a period extending over many years in a 'rondhavel' or hut in the lonely Waterberg mountains, learning to know and make friends with a troop of wild baboons, whose behaviour he wished to study.
He tamed them to such a degree that he could move among them and handle them with impunity. At the same time he busied himself with the other end of the chain and studied termite life, a study which often meant tremendous drudgery and needed endless patience. This proved so popular that the author was besieged for more, and the articles continued for almost two years. About six years after these articles appeared, Maurice Maeterlinck published his book, The Life of the White Ant , in which he describes this organic unity of the termitary and compares it with the human body.
This theory aroused great interest at the time and was generally accepted as an original one formulated by Maeterlinck. The fact that an unknown South African observer had developed the theory after many years of indefatigable labour was not generally known in Europe. Excerpts from Marais's articles had, however, appeared in both the Belgian and the French press at the time of their publication in South Africa.
Indeed, the original Afrikaans articles would have been intelligible to any Fleming, for Afrikaans and Flemish are very similar. No one who reads this book, based on the articles published so many years earlier than Maeterlinck's book, would hesitate to give its author the honour due to him. He was master of a science that was only invented 50 years later ethology ; it was 60 years before anyone else attempted to study what he'd studied ape societies in the wild ; he described natural mechanisms and systems that were not identified by mainstream science until 40 years later pheromones ; and neither science nor society has yet caught up with many of his findings and conclusions.
As a boy growing up in Cape Town in the s I knew of him as an Afrikaans poet, an early champion of the language of the Boers. We studied his poem Winternag Winter's Night in school, and duly thought nothing of it. He could have taught us so much more, if they'd let him.
Like many of us, I always had animals or birds or creatures of some kind around, or in my pocket or hanging off my clothes -- and so did Marais. His son wrote of him: "[He] was never without tame apes, snakes, scorpions, and the like. It became a family joke. If only I'd known what Marais had to say about ants!
It was only much later that I really discovered Marais, and I guess most of us still haven't. Which is rather typical of Marais, and that's a tragedy -- which is also typical of him. As a scientist it was the mind of man, the human psyche, that preoccupied Marais, and to find the key to its nature it was to nature that he turned, rather than to humans. He followed two parallel paths, the study of the animals most like humans, the primates, and the study of creatures that could hardly be more alien to us, the social insects -- termites, known in his day as white ants.
In both fields his findings were revolutionary. In a way Marais was lucky. For entirely unrelated reasons he stumbled upon unique opportunities for his research. One reason for his success was that nobody else had had the chance to do that kind of work before, nor would have again for many years afterwards.
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But it was what he made of his opportunities that counted. And where Marais's luck led him was another matter. Marais was born to a traditional Afrikaner family in the Boer Republic of the Transvaal in He had a rather strange schooling: the only teacher available was a Church of England missionary who could not or would not speak a word of Marais's native Afrikaans -- known as "kitchen Dutch" in the snooty British colony of the Cape, where it was the patois of the mixed-race Cape Coloured servant-class. So Marais learnt English. In , at the age of 18, he took his first job, as a journalist for the newspaper Land en Volk Country and People in Pretoria, the capital.
A year later he was the editor, and by the time he was 20 he owned the newspaper. His acrid comments as a parliamentary reporter at the Volksraad People's Council saw the entire Council vote to ban him from the press gallery. Later he was charged with high treason for opposing the president, Paul Kruger, but he was acquitted by the Supreme Court. It was at this early stage of his career that his life-long struggle with drug-addiction began. Marais suffered severely from the acute pain of neuralgia, and someone suggested morphine, which was readily available then.
He never shook off the habit. His son and others referred obliquely to his bouts with the drug as his "ailing health".
In came a severe blow that undoubtedly changed his life. Aged only 22, he married a young woman from Natal, but she died only a year later after their son was born. He never married again. Soon afterwards he gave up journalism, left Pretoria and went to London to study law. He qualified and was admitted to the bar at the Inner Temple. He studied medicine at the same time but in , before he could qualify, the Boer War broke out, and Marais was put on parole as an enemy alien.
The British Redcoats were no match for the fast-moving Boer commandos -- years of skirmishes and mutual cattle raiding with the Black tribes had made the tough farmers masters of guerrilla tactics. The British, lacking skill, tried sheer weight of numbers instead -- in the end , of Britain's cream were pitted against only 80, Boer fighters.
That didn't work either. Britain's Lord Kitchener finally "solved" the problem. The British cordoned off the land, burned the Boers' farms and herded their women, children and old people into concentration camps, where more than 20, died of disease and malnutrition.
In London, Marais was distraught. He escaped from Britain and was soon in Central Africa heading towards the Limpopo River with supplies of munitions and medicines to aid his countrymen. But before he got there the Boer generals surrendered and the war ended -- and Marais caught malaria and landed up in hospital in Delagoa Bay Mozambique. As with the morphine, he never shook off the malaria, it recurred throughout his life. The war left him shattered.