Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Laurens van der Post
Sir Laurens Jan van der Post (aka Laurens van der Post) December 13, 1906 - December 16, 1996. Famous 20th century Afrikaner author of many books, farmer, war hero, political adviser to British heads of state, educator, journalist, humanitarian, philosopher, explorer, and conservationist.
Laurens was born in the small town of Philipolis in the Orange River Colony, a British colony in what is today South Africa. His father, Christiaan Willem Hendrik van der Post (1856-1914), of Dutch origin, had arrived in South Africa at the age of three and later married Laurens's mother in 1889. Her name was Lammie and was of German origin. The family had a total of fifteen children, with Laurens being the thirteenth, the fifth son. Christiaan was a lawyer and politician, and fought in the Boer War against the British. After the second Boer War he was exiled with his family to Stellenbosch, where Laurens was conceived. They returned to Philipolis in the Orange River Colony in 1906, where Laurens was born.
Lauren spent his early childhood years on the family farm, remembering how he became a fan of reading books from his father's extensive library which included Homer and Shakespeare. In August 1914 his father died and then in 1918 Laurens went to school at Grey College in Bloemfontein. There it was a great shock to him that he was "being educated into something which destroyed the sense of common humanity I shared with the black people". In 1925 he took his first job as a reporter in training at The Natal Advertiser in Durban, where his reporting included his own accomplishments playing on the Durban and Natal hockey teams. In 1926 he and two other rebellious writers Roy Campbell and William Plomer published a satirical magazine called Voorslag (Afrikaans: "Whiplash") which promoted a more racially integrated South Africa; it lasted for three issues before being forced to shut down because of its radical views. Later that year he took off for three months with Plomer and sailed to Tokyo and back on a Japanese freighter, the Canada Maru, an experience which produced books by both authors later in life.
In 1927 Lauren met Marjorie Edith Wendt (d. 1995), daughter of the founder and conductor of the Cape Town Orchestra . They traveled to England and on March 8, 1928 married at Bridport, Dorset. A son was born soon after on December 26, named Jan Laurens (later known as John). In 1929 Laurens returned to South Africa to work for the Cape Times, a newspaper in Cape Town where "For the time being Marjorie and I are living in the most dire poverty that exists," he confessed in his journal. He began to associate with rebel Bohemians and intellectuals who were opposed to James Hertzog (Prime Minister) and the white South African policy. He wrote an article entitled 'South Africa in the Melting Pot' which clarified his views of the South Africa racial problem, he said "The white South African has never consciously believed that the native should ever become his equal." But he predicted "the process of leveling up and inter-mixture must accelerate continually ... the future civilization of South Africa is, I believe, neither black or white but brown."
In 1931 he returned to England and formed friendships with members of the Bloomsbury group including Arthur Waley, J. M. Keynes, E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf were publishers, and had previously published William Plomers works, and it was through Plomers connections that Lauren made introductions to the Woolfs and the somewhat exclusive and scandalous "Bloomsberries".
In 1934 the Woolfs published Laurens first novel under the Hogarth Press label called In a Province, a portrayal of the tragic consequences of a racially divided South Africa. Later that year he decided to become a dairy farmer and, possibly with the help of Lilian Bowes Lyon, bought a farm called Colley Farm, near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, with Lilian as his neighbor. There he divided his time between the needs of the cows, and occasional visits to London where he was a correspondent to South African newspapers. He considered this a directionless phase in his life which mirrored Europe's slow drift to war. In 1936 he made five trips to South Africa and during one trip he met and fell in love with Ingaret Giffard (d. 1997), an English actress and author five years his senior. Later that year his wife Marjorie gave birth to a second child, a daughter named Lucia, and in 1938 he sent his family back to South Africa. When the war started in 1939 he found himself torn between England and South Africa, his new love and his family, his career was at a dead end, and he was in depressed spirits, often drinking heavily.
In May 1940 Laurens volunteered for the British Army and upon completion of officer training in January 1941 he was sent to east Africa in the Intelligence Corp as a Captain. There he took up with General Wingate's Gideon Force which was tasked with restoring the Emperor Haile Selassie to his throne in Abyssinia. His unit led 11,000 camels through difficult mountain terrain and he was remembered for being an excellent caretaker of the animals. In March he came down with malaria and was sent to Palestine to recover. In early 1942 he was transferred to the Dutch East Indies because of his Dutch language skills. He was placed in command of 'special mission 43' whose purpose was to organize an allied retreat after the Japanese invasion of Java. On April 20, 1942 he was captured by the Japanese. He was first taken to Soekaboemi (Sukabumi ) camp and then to Bandoeng. He played a legendary role in keeping up the morale of troops from many different nationalities. Along with other compatriots he organized a "camp university" with courses from basic literacy to degree-standard ancient history, and he also organized a camp farm to supplement nutritional needs. He could also speak some basic Japanese which helped him greatly. Once, depressed, he wrote in his diary: "it is one of the hardest things in this prison life: the strain caused by being continually in the power of people who are only half-sane and live in a twilight of reason and humanity." He wrote about his experiences in A Bar of Shadow (1954) and The Seed and the Sower (1963). Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima based his film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1982) mainly on The Seed and the Sower.
While his fellow POWs left for home, Laurens remained in Java and on September 15th, 1945 he joined Admiral William Patterson on the HMS Cumberland for the official surrender of the Japanese to the British, after which he spent two years helping to mediate between Indonesian nationalists and members of the discredited Dutch colonial regime. He had gained trust with the nationalist leaders such as Mohammad Hatta and Ahmed Sukarno and warned both Mountbatten and prime minister Clement Attlee, whom he met in London in October 1945, that the country was on the verge of blowing up. He went to The Hague to repeat his warning directly to the Dutch cabinet. In November, 1946 British forces withdrew and he became military attache to the British consulate in Batavia, but by 1947, after he had returned to England, his worse fears came to pass, Indonesia collapsed into the civil war which led to independence. Soon after in the same year, he retired from the army and was made a CBE.
Rise to fame
With the war over and his business with the army concluded Laurens returned to South Africa in late 1947 to work at the Natal Daily News, but with the election victory of the National Party bringing in apartheid he came back to London. In May 1949 he was commissioned by the Colonial Development Corporation (CDC) to "assess the livestock capacities of the uninhabited Nyika and Mlanje plateaux [sic] of Nyasaland".
Around this time he divorced Marjorie, and on October 13, 1949 married Ingaret Giffard. Before he married Ingaret, he had become engaged to Fleur Kohler-Baker, the daughter of a prominent farmer and businessman, who was seventeen years old; they had met on a ship with an intense but brief affair of love letters, and so she was shocked to learn when he broke off the relationship. He went on a honeymoon with Ingaret to Switzerland where his new wife introduced him to Carl Jung, and he worked on a travel book about his Nyasaland adventures called Venture to the Interior, which borrowed on the structure of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
In 1950 Lord Reith (head of the CDC) asked Laurens to head an expedition to Bechuanaland, to see the potential of the remote Kalahari Desert for cattle ranching. There Laurens met the Kalahari natives for the first time, a hunter-gatherer bush people known as San. He repeated the journey to the Kalahari again in 1952, the same year Venture to the Interior was published, and it became an immediate best-seller in the US and Europe. In 1954 he published his third book Flamingo Feather, an anti-communist novel about a Soviet plot to take over South Africa, which sold very well. Alfred Hitchcock planned to film the book, but lost support from South African authorities and gave up the idea. Penguin books kept Flamingo Feather in print until the collapse of the U.S.S.R.. In 1955 the BBC commissioned Laurens to return to the Kalahari in search of the bushmen which turned into a very popular six-part television documentary series in 1956. In 1958 his most famous book was released under the same title as the BBC series The Lost World of the Kalahari, followed in 1961 by The Heart of the Hunter, derived from 19th century Bushmen stories by Wilhelm Bleek.
Laurens described the bushmen as the original natives of southern Africa, outcast and persecuted by all other races and nationalities, he said they represented the "lost soul" of all mankind, a type of noble savage myth. This mythos of the Bushmen inspired the colonial government to create the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1961 to guarantee their survival, and the reserve became a part of settled law when Botswana was created in 1966.
Laurens fame and success was now assured. He had become a popular television personality, had introduced the world to the Kalahari bushmen, and was considered an authority on Bushmen folklore and culture. "I was compelled towards the Bushmen," he said, "like someone who walks in his sleep, obedient to a dream of finding in the dark what the day has denied him." Over the next decade he had a steady stream of book releases, including novels drawn from his war experiences The Seed and the Sower (1963) and The Night of the New Moon (1970). A travel book called A Journey into Russia (1964) describing a long trip through the Soviet Union. In 1972 there was another BBC television series of his 16-year friendship with Jung, who died in 1961, which was followed by the book Jung and the Story of our Time (1976).
Ingaret and he moved to Aldeburgh, Suffolk where they became involved with a circle of friends that included an introduction to Prince Charles, whom he then took on a safari to Kenya in 1977 and with whom he had a close and influential friendship for the rest of his life. Also in 1977 he along with Ian Player , a South African conservationist, created the first World Wilderness Congress in Johannesburg. In 1979 his Chelsea neighbor Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and she called on his advice with matters dealing with southern Africa, notably the Rhodesia settlement of 1979-80. In 1981 he was given a Knighthood.
In 1982 he fell and injured his back and used the downtime from tennis and skiing to write an autobiography called Yet Being Someone Other (1982) which discussed his love of the sea and his journey to Japan with Plomer in 1926. By now Ingaret was slipping into senility and he spent much time with an old friend Frances Baruch. In 1984 his son John died, who had gone on to be an engineer in London, and Laurens spent time with his youngest daughter Lucia and her family.
Even in old age Laurens was involved with many projects, from the worldwide conservationist movement, to setting up a centre of Jungian studies in Cape Town. He remained as always a captivating speaker and storyteller both in public and private. In 1996 he tried to prevent the eviction of the bushmen from their homeland in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which had been set up for that purpose, but ironically it was his work in the 1950s to promote the land for cattle ranching that lead to their eventual downfall and removal. In October 1996 he published The Admiral's Baby describing the events in Java at the end of the war. For his 90th birthday party he had a five-day celebration in Colorado, with a "this is your life" type event with friends from every period of his life. A few days later on December 16th, 1996, after whispering in Afrikaans "die sterre" (the stars), he died. The funeral took place December 20th in London attended by Prince Charles and Lady Thatcher and Nelson Mandela and many friends and family. His ashes were buried in a special memorial garden at Philipolis on April 4th, 1998. Ingaret died five months after him on May 5th, 1997.
After his death a number of writers rushed to discredit Laurens. It was revealed that in 1952 he had fathered a child with a fourteen year-old girl who had been under his care during a sea voyage to England from South Africa. His reputation as a 'modern sage' and 'guru to Prince Charles' was ridiculed. Journalists opened a flood gate of examples of how Laurens had not always told the truth in his books. These facts came together in the 2001 book by J.D.F. Jones Teller of Many Tales: The Lives of Laurens van der Post, a biography which set out to destroy Laurens reputation. However, while the book did reveal a darker side to Laurens life, it did not explain Laurens popularity and why he struck a chord with so many people. Nor could his war hero efforts and his conservation efforts be so easily dismissed. The extraordinary life of Laurens van der Post -- Author of many books, farmer, soldier, prisoner of war, political adviser to British heads of state, educator, humanitarian, philosopher, explorer, and conservationist -- is a reputation that stands on its own.
Works mentioned in the article. For an extensive complete list see External links.
- In a Province, 1934
- Venture to the Interior, 1952
- Flamingo Feather, 1955
- The Lost World of the Kalahari, 1958 (BBC 6-part TV series, 1956)
- The Heart of the Hunter, 1961
- The Seed and the Sower, 1963
- A Journey into Russia, 1964 (US title: A View of All the Russias)
- The Night of the New Moon, August 6, 1945... Hiroshima, 1970 (US title: The Prisoner and the Bomb)
- Jung and the Story of Our Time, 1975
- Yet Being Someone Other, 1982
- The Admirals Baby, 1996
Movie adaptions of his books, otherwise he is not in or involved directly with these movies.
- Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) -- Based on The Seed and the Sower (1963) and The Night of the New Moon (1970), about his wartime experience as a prisoner of war. Starring David Bowie.
- A Far-Off Place (1993) -- Based on A Far-Off Place (1974) and A Story Like the Wind (1972).
- Carpenter, Frederic I., Laurens Van Der Post. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc, 1969
- Voorslag 1-3 (1926): A Magazine of South African Life and Art, Roy Campbell, Laurens Van der Post, William Plomer, ISBN 0869804235
- Jones, J.D.F., Teller of Many Tales: The Lives of Laurens van der Post, 2001, ISBN 0786710314 - Revisionist biography.
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