Jacob Haafner is known for the various travelogues he published about his travels and adventures in Africa and Asia. Haafner travelled with his father to Batavia in 1766, at the age of 11. However, his father died en route in Cape Town. Several VOC servants at the Cape took care of Haafner after this. He continued to live at the Cape for another year and a half, then travelled to Batavia where he hoped to work for the VOC, but instead received an appointment as private tutor to the children of a senior VOC servant. Haafner was fired from this position and returned to Cape Town in early 1769, where he stayed for a year, before travelling to the Dutch Republic.
However, after less than a year in the Dutch Republic, he enlisted as a sailor for the VOC in June 1771. He spent the next 16 years mainly in India and Ceylon - first in VOC service, later in various other employments. He witnessed the wars between the various colonial powers among themselves and with the kingdom of Mysore. He eventually returned to the Netherlands in 1787.
From 1806, he published several books about his travels and experiences, which were very successful at the time.