“Life Under the Palms: The Sublime World of the Anti-colonialist Jacob Haafner” by Paul van der Velde


Indology—a field of study about India’s history and culture associated with 19th-century British and German figures—had an interesting German-Dutch predecessor, Jacob Haafner (1754-1809). The man reached India as the servant of the VOC (or the Dutch East India Company) after having lived in South Africa and Java for a while. His travel-writing about India, vituperative views on colonialism and writings on missionary activity in India and the East in general made him unpopular among the Dutch elite whose help he desperately needed to be employed as a bureaucrat or to sponsor his writing. It was towards the time of his death that he came to be recognized as an authentic writer with an intimate understanding of local culture (as opposed to the “armchair travellers” or “travel liars”  who would base their fantastic tales on their reading of others’ travelogues). His works came to be translated into German, French, Danish, Swedish, and English.

Paul van der Velde’s biography of Jacob Haafner, translated into English as Life Under the Palms: The Sublime World of the Anti-colonialist Jacob Haafner by Liesbeth Bennik, is a rich source of insight not just into the subject but also into the times in which he lived—when the British were fast gaining control of various kingdoms in India and the hold of the Dutch was waning. It was a time when famine and war ruined cities; Haafner’s testimony provides a horrifying account of despair suffered by the Indians as well as the Dutch to some extent.


Life Under the Palms: The Sublime World of the Anti-colonialist Jacob Haafner, Paul van der Velde, Liesbeth Bennink (trans) (NUS Press, September 2020)
Life Under the Palms: The Sublime World of the Anti-colonialist Jacob Haafner, Paul van der Velde, Liesbeth Bennink (trans) (NUS Press, September 2020)

Jacob Haafner was born to Dutch parents (his father hailed from Colmar, France) in Halle, Germany. His father seems to have joined the VOC as a surgeon. Jacob accompanied him on the voyages which seemed to have kindled a wanderlust in him. After his father’s death, he was left to fend for himself and his family. He began his career as a tutor but continued to search for opportunities to sail. Thus began his life abroad – South Africa, Java, Sri Lanka, India, and Mauritius. In India, he lived in various southern cities – out of which his description of the Mahabalipuram temple is a beautiful example.


That the arts and sciences have previously experienced a flourishing and that everything we call miraculous like the pyramids of Egypt cannot be compared with the awe-inspiring ruins and colossi that can be found in Mahabalipuram and spread across all of India.


He returned to Amsterdam, where he expected to live well on the money he had earned. However, he had invested it all in French promissory notes which soon became worthless. That is when recorded his observations in the form of travelogues, apart from a translation of Ramayana, and a treatise on Hindu customs in an attempt to be employed by the Dutch Society of Sciences. While his attempts failed, the works remain an interesting portrait of a traveller and his travels.


Paul van der Velde has republished Haafner’s works since 1993. His immersion into Haafner and his works for so long helps this biography verge on the genre of autobiography for the book generously quotes from Haafner’s books with the biographer’s words only coming in to connect one episode from Haafner’s life to another or to set the context of the quote at hand. Excerpts from Haafner’s writings range from funny to horrifying descriptions of his travels, adventures, near-death experiences, local culture and architecture.

Haafner finds British India to be a “spitting image of hell” with “rascals, squanderers, criminals, bankrupts, and other bad people” among Europeans in general ruining Asia, especially, India:


That unhappy continent has become the workhouse of Europe; wrongdoers, spendthrifts, thugs, anyone who has been banned from his birthplace by his crimes or in a different way, bankrupts and other bad people. Everything rushes to the Indies as to one common prey. Everyone wants to make his fortune and in which way is this possible? Only by robbing the company that they work for or by oppressing, plundering, and murdering the poor inhabitants. Of the ten who come back rich from there certainly nine have obtained their booty that way.


The biographer’s voice, before it moves on to another quote about Haafner’s thoughts on not missing Europe, makes a sharp point: “He himself was convinced that he had won his fortune in a fair manner.”

The biography brings together images painted by Haafner and included in the books when these were first published—quite well-detailed to be reproduced in the present volume. The cover image, painted by Haafner, is a depiction of his reunion with his Indian girlfriend Mamia at the tank of a temple in Nawabpet in south India.

Haafner is an interesting figure to revisit now—he was attacked by his fellow citizens for being critical of the missionary work in the East (he called them criminals and villains who should be made to stop their “spiritual tyranny”), and then he was appropriated by the National Socialists during the Second World War as part of their anti-British propaganda in the Netherlands. He is now recognized as a great writer in the Dutch canon.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.