An anti-colonialist with a multicultural perspective

With the publication of the third volume of the Complete Works of Jacob Haafner in the Werken uitgegeven door de Linschoten – Vereeniging (Works published by the Linschoten – Society) all

travel accounts written by Haafner have been chronologically republished. Haafner lived in India and Sri Lanka for more than thirteen years. His direct literary style and his adventurous life blended to make his books very popular in his day. And his works remain appealing for the contemporary. His descriptions of everyday life bear witness to his sharp powers of observation and love of the indigenous cultures. These qualities prompted Haafner to wax highly critical of the colonial conditions existing then. From a culture-historical and literary perspective the works of Jacob Haafner are a monument to Dutch travel story writing. His observations were translated into German, English, French, and Latin and were widely appreciated. In Britain the liveliness of his adventures was admired and in Germany he was called a humanitarian and a unprejudiced observer, whereas in France he was praised for his brilliant and santillating style of writing.

The first volume of the present republication was published in 1992. The book was accorded wide coverage in the media and Haafner was rediscovered as one of the most important writers of Dutch literature in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the wake of the media attention the first volume was soon out of print and in view of the continuing demand it was reprinted in 1997. The second volume was published in 1995. This third volume, his opus magnum, Travels in a Palanquin, contains a vivid description of his romance with an Indian dancer set against the background of the Coromandel coast in India.

Biographical sketch

Jacob Gotfried Haafner was born in Halle (Germany) on the 13th May 1754 of a French father and a German mother. Shortly after his birth his father settled in Embden to work as a physician. In 1765 the family moved to cosmopolitan Amsterdam. When Haafner senior’s practice failed to attract enough patients, he decided to enlist as a ship’s surgeon in the service of the Dutch East India Company. His decision to take his son with him had far-reaching consequences for the course of Jacob Haafner’s life. Hardly had they reached Cape Town when Haafner senior died. At first Jacob was cared for by a friendly Dutch family but after supporting him for two years, his foster parents decided that Jacob should start working. Thus, in 1768, Haafner mustered as a cabin-boy on a ship bound for Jakarta. Having arrived in the capital of the Dutch Indies for several months took the position of tutor to the children of a high-ranking VOC official. Realizing that he was not a born teacher, he returned to Cape Town where he was employed by a slave-trader. Intensifying conflicts with his employer about the treatment of slaves made him decide to return to Amsterdam in 1770.

He became a painter’s apprentice but soon the atmosphere of the city began to oppress him, one of the reasons being his vexatious mother, who had tried in vain to gain possession of the money Haafner had earned as a VOC employee. Haafner, who he himself claimed was gripped by travel mania, decided to go East. `The love of travelling is an unfortunate, incurable desire, ending only with life, which it frequently shortens. I have been possessed with this desire from my childhood; it troubles me still now I am become older, and embitters many of my days. This insatiable curiosity to examine everything myself, and foolish passion for adventures, has exposed me to many dangers, and been the occasion of much adversity and vexation; it has often rendered me unhappy, or forced me from the happiness I enjoyed.’

After two years of wandering on the high seas, he enlisted as an assistant bookkeeper at Negapatnam in 1773, the head office of the VOC on the Coromandel coast. In 1779 he became secretary-bookkeeper at a branch office in Sadraspatnam, a post which could have been the beginning of a promising VOC career. The outbreak of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War in 1781 cut this prospect short. He was taken prisoner-of-war and was held for one year in Madras. After being released at the end of 1782 he arrived in Ceylon at the beginning of 1783 and made a journey through Ceylon from June to September of that year. Then he went to Calcutta, where he arrived at the end of 1783. He became bookkeeper to the former Governor of Benares, J.Fowke. During his two-year stay he moved in the circles of the Asiatic Society, which had been founded in 1784 by Sir William Jones. In 1786 he made an extensive trip through Orissa and the Coromandel Coast. He had no difficulty in surviving in the international business community of the Subcontinent. He was fluent in the modern European languages and Tamil and Hindi, while he also had a limited understanding of Sanskrit. During the last years of his stay in India he succeeded in amassing a small fortune, whereupon he returned to Europe in 1787.

He traveled extensively through Europe and settled in Amsterdam in 1790 where he met his future wife, A.M. Kreunink. They had three children. Until 1794 he probably led the life of a gentlemen scholar but in that year, in the wake of the Revolution, his investments in French bonds were no longer worth the paper they were printed on. To provide for his family he opened up a shop as a pipe salesman and simultaneously started writing about his experiences in Asia. His first travel story was published in 1806. His books met with success. However, he did not live to enjoy it because, on the 3rd September 1809, he died, aged 55, of a chronic heart disease, while working on the manuscript of his book on Sri Lanka. Probably the last lines he ever wrote are those at the end of the general description of Sri Lanka: `Fare thee well thou ingratiating objects which have enchanted my soul! Fare thee well!’

Haafner as a writer

In the year 1801 Haafner started publishing in magazines about his experiences in India and Sri Lanka and his travel stories began to appear in 1806. These were not published chronologically and only two of them were published by Haafner himself. His son, Christian Mathias, published the other works of his father and, in 1826-1827, he published the complete travel accounts of Haafner. In all, five books containing travel stories have been published. Lotgevallen en vroegere zeereizen (1820) [Adventures and Early Sea Voyages] dealing with his first sea-journey and his time in South Africa and Jakarta. Lotgevallen op eene reize van Madras over Tranquebar naar het eiland Ceylon (1806) [Adventures on a Journey from Madras via Tranquebar to Ceylon], dealing with the period 1773-1783, his sojourn in Negapatnam, Sadras, his escape from Madras to Ceylon; Reize te voet door het eiland Ceilon (1810) [Travels On Foot Through the Island of Ceylon], being an account of his journey through Sri Lanka in 1783; Reize in eenen Palanquin (1808, two volumes) [Travels in a Palanquin], being an account of his journey along the Coromandel coast in 1786 and his infatuation with the Indian dancer, Mamia; Reize naar Bengalen en terugreize naar Europa (1822) [Journey to Bengal and Return-voyage to Europe], about his stay in Bengal from 1784 to 1786 and his return-voyage to Europe. He was one of the very few Dutch authors whose books were translated. German translations appeared in 1806, 1809, and 1816, a French and a Swedish one in 1811 and an English and a Danish one in 1821.

Haafner’s travel stories won themselves a wide audience and positive reviews and became popular in Holland witnessing several reprints in the twenties and the fifties of the nineteenth century. Thereafter, the interest in the works of Haafner waned, but he continued to enjoy a great popularity in a small circle of connoisseurs. In his travel stories he recounts his adventures in Asia, his work in the service of the Dutch East India Company, his contacts with Indian and Singhalese civilizations and his life at the Dutch factories on the Indian and Sri Lankese coasts. His description of his life in Asia departs in many instances from the rather stereotyped images depicted by other writers of travel stories. His sketches of the informal, relaxed life style, the manifold interactions between Europeans and local population, the many friendships resulting from these, the enervating parties, are enthralling and cheerful, a quality markedly absent from stories written by other of his contemporaries. Now that his travel stories have been republished chronologically they can also be regarded as one of the few voluminous autobiographies written in the Netherlands. One of the Haafner’s great services was that he was not just the author of fascinating travel stories, he was also what is commonly referred to as a proto-Orientalist.


His rendering of part of the Ramayana, Proeve van Indiase Dichtkunde volgens den Ramaijon (1823) [Sample of Indian Poetry on the Basis of the Ramayana] is proof of this. After his return from Asia Haafner was actively involved in the study of Indian languages and cultures. He tried to start a journal on India but his plan never materialized. The intellectual climate in Amsterdam at that time did not encourage the study of the Indian languages and culture. To escape from his isolation he contacted English proto-Orientalists, whose work had received a great deal of attention. The republic of letters in England was deeply involved in translating Indian classical texts and writing about Indian culture. Such an environment conducive to study was completely lacking in the Netherlands.

Despite the relative sterility, Haafner’s knowledge of India and Indian literature received a degree of recognition in 1797 when a specimen of his rendering of the Ramayana was recited during a meeting of the leading Literary Society of Amsterdam. We have evidence that Haafner collected Indian texts but his sudden death in 1809 prevented him from publishing these texts himself. In 1823 his son published his father’s rendering of part of the Ramayana. It contains 300 pages and in the introduction his son claims that his father had translated directly from the Sanskrit original. Unfortunately we have to conclude that, although Haafner must have had a basic understanding of Sanskrit grammar and must have known many Sanskrit words, the claim by his son is ill-founded. Haafner’s rendering of the Ramayana offers a correct excerpt of the Ramayana which he must have based on oral sources and on Tamil, Hindi, and Bengal versions of the Ramayana. Haafner’s “translation” was the first to appear in Dutch.

Notwithstanding his achievements, the founder of scientific Sanskrit studies in the Netherlands, H. Kern, does not mention Haafner in his works. This is curious since abroad Haafner’s work was mentioned in one breath with the works of Schlegel, Wilkins, Jones and others, for example in a German survey about Sanskrit literature by Friedrich Abelung and in an English translation of the book by D.A.Talboys. Only later, at the end of the nineteenth century were his scientific efforts validated by the Dutch Indologist J.Ph. Vogel, who viewed Haafner as the pioneer of Indian studies in the Netherlands, also seizing the opportunity to praise Haafner for his humanitarian attitude expressed in his writings. Vogel was referring more specifically to Haafner’s Verhandeling over het Nut van Zendelingen en Zendelins-Genootschappen (1807) (Essay on the Usefulness of Missionaries and Missionary Societies).


This book is essential to our knowledge of Haafner’s ideas about colonialism and the influence of the Enlightenment and Romanticism on his way of thinking. Haafner sent his manuscript to the Enlightened Teyler’s Theological Society in Haarlem which had offered a prize for the best answer to the question: What is the usefulness of the missionaries and missionary societies? In his answer Haafner completely rejected the mission as such and condemned the behavior of the missionaries. Haafner had one good piece of advice for future attempts to missionize: try to Christianize the Europeans in the colonies and leave the local population alone. Haafner argued for the complete withdrawal of all imperial powers from their respective colonies. It would take 150 years for Haafner’s wish to come true. The Directors of the Theological Society will probably have been galvanized while reading Haafner’s manuscript. Nevertheless, they were willing to give the award to Haafner if he polished his text and quoted his sources.

In response to this criticism about the first draft of his essay, Haafner buttressed his arguments with quotations from a wide range of writers, Volaire, Rousseau, De Las Casas, Ziegenbalg, Charlevoix, and Gage, which gives an idea of the wide range of Haafner’s reading and the writers he was influenced by. One way used by Enlightened authors to criticize Western culture was to present a philosophic foreigner to pass critical comments on Western culture. In the case of Haafner a sannyasin who abhors Western hunting practices and the eating of meat. Haafner claimed to have become a vegetarian under his influence and he describes with repugnance scenes in Amsterdam where the blood of butchered animals gushed down the gutters. The use of a spokesman from another culture to criticize one’s own can also be found in the writings of Romantic authors who held up distant lands and distant times as a model for Western man. Similarities may thus be discovered in Enlightened and Romantic writing. The differences between Romantic thought and Enlightened thought, on the other hand, far outweigh these similarities.

Caught between the Enlightenment and Romanticism

The main tenet of Enlightened thought is a universalistic one. Voltaire argued reason will, in due course, conquer all particularistic tendencies. This linear process will result in the growth of supra-national juridical, aesthetic, and moral concepts based on humanitarian insights. This way of thinking had a profound influence on French revolutionary thought, which did away with tradition and based itself on the individual’s membership of a state on that individual’s free will. This meant that man, no longer the prisoner of a certain regime, religion or country, had become a creature of all seasons, unrestricted by traditions. In a world turned upside down, institutions could no longer derive their authority from traditions but had to feed on ideals. This break from historical consciousness gave birth to a timeless will and unprecedented ideals which, owing to their absolute aspirations, fostered an imperialistic tendency.

The main tenet of Romantic thought, on the other hand, was a particularistic one. According to the German philosopher Herder, man did not belong to a nation from free will but was chained to it by birth, language, and religion. Under such circumstances man could only be understood in the context of his time. The institutions by which he was governed derived their authority from their longevity. These deterministic, particularistic claims excluded universalistic aspirations.

How are these elements of Enlightened and Romantic thought reflected in the works of Haafner? There is a strong contradictory undertone in Haafner’s way of thinking. Unquestionably Haafner was clearly a child of the Enlightenment but although he shared the basic attitudes of the Enlightenment, he did not share its universalistic claims, certainly not if this involved colonial rule. In a romantic vein he stated that every nation should be governed by its own rulers. In the case of India this was reflected by Haafner’s admiration for the Indian leader Hyder Ali Khan, whom he considered to be the leader of a pioneering liberation war.

It is no wonder that Haafner viewed Western influence on indigenous cultures as being detrimental. It was embodied by its representatives, depraved colonizers, who enslaved or decimated whole populations, and missionaries, who were completely uninformed about the people they wanted to convert. Haafner feared that it would lead to their destruction and, like Rousseau, he admired these “barbarians”: `The desires of barbarians are few’, he said, `and are easily satisfied. Therefore he is always happier than civilized men whose desires are innumerable.’ It is highly likely that Haafner was also influenced by Bhuddist teachings wherein the source of human grief is defined as human desire. Haafner’s saying that `from a humanitarian point of view I could become barbarian’ can thus be translated as `from the point of view of the Enlightenment I could embrace Romanticism.’

In fact Haafner wanted to be one with the indigenous population: `I could not forbear laughing to myself when the good old man took me for a Mestese. It is true I had altogether the manner and exterior appearance of one, and he was only in part deceived, for besides being without shoes or stockings, my face was quite sunburn, and I spoke the Malabar language very fluently.’ This yearning to become barbarian was completely alien to the Western frame of mind at the beginning of the nineteenth century.


Haafner’s way of thinking proved a shock for his contemporaries. This can best be illustrated by the reactions to Haafner’s `Essay on the Usefulness of Missionaries and Missionary Societies’ which can be viewed as his intellectual testament. It was the topic of heated debates in missionary circles in the Netherlands. Four essays were written to refute his assertions. The authors tried to undermine Haafner’s scientific and moral reputation. They accused him of a lack of faith and of being opposed to missionary endeavors. Moreover, they wrote that his historical knowledge of the mission was inadequate; that he had not used the `politically correct’ sources and literature and, when he did so, he had quoted these out of the context. And in the end, his way of thinking was completely based on false conceptions.

What were these false conceptions? As his point of departure Haafner took the nature, the way of thinking, and customs of indigenous populations in order to show that attempts to convert them would be fruitless. This way of thinking, in which the stress came to lie on the other civilization instead of putting western culture first, was completely unacceptable to his contemporaries because, by doing so, he put the other civilization on equal footing with the Christian civilization. The alpha and omega of one’s frame of thought should be the Holy Scriptures in which everything was clearly formulated and which gave answers to all questions. This prevailing pattern of thinking excluded any originality on the part of other civilizations. When Haafner praised the Vedas as an original Hindu work about the teaching of the unity of the deity, one of his critics stated that such a pure concept could only have been borrowed from the Holy Scriptures. Therefore Haafner’s critic could say without blushing that the Vedas were a corruption of the Holy Scriptures and that it was time to re-introduce the real Vedas. His critic was sure that this was what the Hindus were waiting for!

The fundamental thought put forward by Haafner when he viewed the mission from the perspective of another way of thinking could never be understood by his Western contemporaries who as convinced Christians had severely limited intellectual horizons. The remark passed by the French translator of Haafner’s work that the latter was a penseur original et profond was then as true as it is now.