Jacob Haafner Traveller

     Jacob Haafner

    [Part 1: The Traveller]

    Kees Boukema


    Jacob Haafner was, according to the internationally renowned Indologist, Sanskritist and archaeologist Prof. Dr. J. Ph. Vogel, the founder of the study of India in the Netherlands. In his speech ‘The practice of the study of Old-Indian literature in the Netherlands’ (Amsterdam, 1898) he called Haafner: ‘The first Dutchman with a pure interest in the ideas of the Indians.’ Vogel saw Haafner’s travelogue, which appeared around 1800, as an important source for our knowledge of the Dutch colonies at the end of the 18th century in Coromandel and Bengal. And, according to Vogel, Haafner was the first to give a scientifically correct description of the Mahabalipuram temple complex, located north of Sadras.

    [Note: Sadras, an Anglican form of Saduranga Patnam is a fort-town, situated in Chengalpattu District of Tamil nadu. This magnificent fort was built by the Dutch for commercial purposes.]

    In the first half of the 19th century, Haafner was the most famous Dutch writer abroad. His books have been translated into English, French and German. The German translation was also translated into Danish and Swedish. He was seen as an ’empathetic and open-minded observer’ and praised for ‘his Enlightenment-influenced ideas’ and his ‘naturalistic and lively contributions to the knowledge of the geography and ethnology of Asia’ (see in detail: Paul van der Velde, “Wie onder palmen leeft”, Amsterdam, 2008, pp. 151, 177 and 186 et seq.)

    Jacob Haafner was born on May 13, 1754 in Halle (Germany) and moved to Amsterdam with his parents in 1763. He was twelf years old when he set sail for Asia with his father, who had entered the service of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as a ship’s surgeon. His father died just before arriving in Cape Town. Jacob was temporarily placed in foster care. After a short stay in Batavia, he returned to Amsterdam on a VOC ship, but he did not like life there at all. ‘Wanderlust, [which is] an unfortunate, incurable disease that ends only with life itself, that’s often shortened by it’, he would later write, ‘the disease with which I have been afflicted since my youth’ (Van der Velde, a.w. p. 83). This made him decide to travel to Asia again.

    Haafner arrived in India in 1773. He would stay there for thirteen years. He first worked as a salaried clerk at the VOC branch in Nagapatnam. There he acquired a intimate knowledge of trade and the art of accounting. He then worked as a self-employed bookkeeper for the manager of the VOC factory in Sadras. People from different cultural backgrounds lived together peacefully in this village. Haafner has, in his own words, spent the best time of his life there. He made many friends and fully participated in the colorful and casual social life. He liked to walk in the nearby valley and visited the remains of an impressive temple complex. From a sannyasin who resided there, he learned the basics of Sanskrit and thus gained access to the holy scriptures of the Hindus (Van der Velde, pp. 59 ff., 159).

    During the fourth Anglo-Dutch war (1780-1784), Sadras was unexpectedly captured by English troops and destroyed. Haafner and other Dutchmen were taken as prisoners of war to Madras (now Chennai). The city was overrun with refugees and surrounded by gangs of robbers. There was a dire shortage of food. When a flotilla of eighty  ships carrying rice appeared before the coast, despite clear signs of the approach of a storm, the English refused permission to unload the cargo. ‘The eruption of the ferocious hurricane was so terrible (…) that all the ships broke loose from their anchors; they lurched and crashed into each other. Creaking and shattered they sank into the depths’ The whole cargo was lost.

    Shortly after this evil Haafner managed to escape the moribund Madras by ship and reach Jaffna, the northern seaport town of Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka. (The Works of Jacob Haafner, Volume 1, pp. 165-205).

    In his book “Travel on foot through the island of Ceilon”, Haafner devotes no less than sixty pages to a lyrical description of the flora, fauna, people and history of the island; one and a half times the size of the Netherlands, with beaches, lagoons and high mountains. Firmly in the hands of the VOC since 1658. Remnants of the Dutch coastal defenses are still visible; one fortress with twelve bastions is still completely intact. Haafner met old friends there, who had also fled the violence of war. With one of them, Jan Gotlieb Templijn, he travelled along the west coast of the island to Colombo, the capital, and back through the largely unexplored mountainous inland. His description of this expedition served the Ceylon historian Donald Ferguson in 1890 as a source for his Ceylon Literary Register (Van der Velde, pp. 82 and 187).

    Because the war ended in 1783, Haafner left for Calcutta, where he was able to work as bookkeeper for Joseph Fowke, the former governor of Benares. Fowke introduced Haafner to the social life of Calcutta. It is likely that he met the famous linguist William Jones there. William Jones was, at the time, a Justice of the Supreme Court. Together with Governor General Hastings, he was in favour for close contact with India’s cultural elite and was the founder of the Asiatic Society and Asiatic Researches magazine. In those years Haafner immersed himself in the mythology of Hinduism.

    In Calcutta, Haafner was also able to manage his own business and arrange the transport of the goods to trading houses in London. Calcutta was, Haafner wrote, “the most beautiful city in all India, with the most formidable fortress outside Europe and imposing columned buildings,” but, he added, “a greatness upon the ruins of the happiness and prosperity of all their neighboring nations founded and obtained by the blood of millions of innocents and brought together from the plunder of all.”

    In 1786, Haafner set out by ship, loaded with trade goods, for a business trip up the Coromandel Coast, via Madras, Mauritius and Cape Town to the French island of Isle de Croix, Lorient, where he arrived on 25 May 1786. There he made money from his trading goods and undertook various trips through France, Italy and Germany, where he visited relatives before settling permanently in Amsterdam.


    Mr Kees Boukema is a scholar in Vedanta and Comparative philosophy. His brilliant and thorough-going articles on various philosophical and spiritual subjects  are being published since the first issue of the magazine. His latest work is De Beoefening van Meditatie.