Life Under the Palms

Anushka Kahandagamage

The book is the biography of Jacob Haafner, a Dutch traveler of German origin. He spent more than 20 years in South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius. According to the author, unlike the memoirs of many travelers, entrepreneurs, colonial officers, Haafner captured the cruelty and oppression of colonialism in his writings. Haafner’s narratives shows the cruel side of the slave trade, the maltreatment of slaves as animals and the abandonment of colonial subjects to death by famine.

The book consists of five chapters, including an introduction. The Introduction maps the expeditions of Haafner and his writings. Further, the author locates himself in the study and within the world of Haafner by elucidating the how he became attracted to Haafner's writings. The author of the book, Paul van der Velde, is a historian and an expert on the Dutch in Asia. The book is translated from Dutch to English by Liesbeth Bennink.

The first chapter is marked as A Wandering Existence, which includes Haafner's first expedition to the East and his experiences and adventures. As an adolescent, Haafner secures the opportunity to sail to East with his father, a medical doctor. However, he does not sail solely as the doctor's son but as a ship’s boy on the vessel. The second chapter is assigned to explain the troubled life he had in India. This chapter consists of his interactions with different colonial rulers who traveled to the East. The second chapter reveals details about famine in India, Haffner's struggles to make money and survive in these difficult times by doing different jobs. The third chapter, Where can our Soul Shelter, is dedicated to his expedition to Ceylon with his young wife and life in Ceylon. The penultimate chapter is about his return to India, and the closing chapter concerns his final sorrowful years in Europe.


This title introduces the 19th century Dutch traveler, Haafner, and his writings to the world. The book opens a window into the 19th century colonial world by including excerpts and examples of Haafner's original writings and his sketches. The book provides an approachable point of view on the available sources to a learner interested in studying the colonial past. Further, the author's expertise and in-depth research in the field ensure an authentic account of Haafner's writings. Haafner practiced drawing from a young age and his sketches can be seen in his written accounts. By including these drawings in the book, the author subtly draws the reader into the past provoking curiosity to research this history further. Haafner glorifies the multi-cultural and multi-religious co-existence in the East by highlighting the stimulating interactions and meetups he had with divergent ethnic, cultural, and racial groups. Although his father was a medical doctor, migrating to the Netherlands from Germany posed the Haafner family with challenging financial conditions. The situation led Haafner and his father to join and work on a Dutch East India Company ship, which sailed to the East. Haafner's father dies on the journey, and Haafner becomes an orphan. Due to these conditions, he ends up in a lowly position in the world of colonial masters. The author unearths the different layers of colonial subjects and the colonial masters through the life story of Haafner, going beyond the simple categories of the colonizer and the colonial subject. Haafner glorifies the mixed cultural milieu in the colonies over highly hierarchical Dutch society. He is able to see and depict the oppressive nature of colonization because he is from a lower layer of the colonial endeavor.

What makes the character of this book special is that it exposes the reader to a less known colonial writer with a markedly different perspective. In addition, the book introduces new sources that can provide the historian with a more nuanced and a subtle analysis that goes beyond imposing the present socio-economic and political structures on the past.

This is the English translation of the Sinhala review published on the Patitha website, 4 November 2020.