Mata Hari: The incredible life of a Dutch courtesan

Mata Hari: The incredible life of a Dutch courtesan

The Netherlands has been home to some incredible people. From painters like Rembrandt to footballers like Johan Cruyff, the Dutch people have been at the forefront of arts, music and sport throughout history.

Mata Hari is another incredible person from the Netherlands. She wasn’t a famous writer or master architect, Mata Hari was an exotic dancer, courtesan and, during the First World War, an undercover spy for the French intelligence agency. Her story is long and tragic but an incredible journey that saw her escape a troubled childhood to go on to captivate the French nightlife, socialise with the rich and powerful and, in an attempt to find her lost love, agree to spy for France.

Mata Hari’s story doesn’t end there and over the next couple of weeks, we will discover the astounding life of Mata Hari and the tragic twist her life took. However, every story has a beginning, and in this article, we will learn about the early life of one of the most incredible and resilient women to have come from the Netherlands.


Margaretha Zelle was born in 1876 in Leeuwarden, the capital city of Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. Her father, Adam Zelle, owned a hat shop with his wife, Antje van der Meulen. Adam made successful investments in the oil industry and sent Margaretha and her three younger brothers to top private schools.

For a while, all was well in the Zelle family and Margaretha enjoyed a privileged childhood. However, in 1189, when Margaretha was just 13, her father went bankrupt and her parents divorced. Margaretha's mother died in 1891 and her father soon remarried. Margaretha was devastated and left her family to live with her godfather, a Mr Visser, in Sneek. She began to study as a kindergarten teacher in Leiden but, after the headmaster made unwanted advances, left and went to live with her uncle in The Hague.

Marriage in the East Indies

At the tender age of 18, Margaretha answered an ad in a Dutch newspaper. The ad was put out by Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutch Colonial Army Captain, who was living in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and looking for a wife. Despite being 20 years her senior, MacLeod returned to the Netherlands to marry Margaretha in Amsterdam in the summer of 1895. In 1897, Margaretha followed her new husband to Malang in Java to start a new life in Asia. In her first two years on the island, Margaretha gave birth to two children, Norman-John and Louise Jeanne.

The honeymoon period didn’t last long. Rudolf’s army career stagnated, and he blamed his wife for being unable to gain a promotion. Margaretha fled and moved in with another Dutch officer named Van Rheedes. While staying with Van Rheedes, Margaretha studied Indonesian traditions and dance, even joining a local dance troupe. At this time, while writing back to her relatives in the Netherlands, Margaretha revealed she would be adopting an artistic name. Her new name was Sun in the local Malay language and thus, Mata Hari was born.

Tragedy strikes again

Rudolf, desperate to bring his wife home, begged Mata to return with him. Believing his hollow promises of change, Mata agreed to return with her husband. Rudolf was unable to change his behaviour and Mata threw herself into her studies to escape her life at home. Tragedy struck the beleaguered girl again when her children fell violently ill.

The children supposedly contracted syphilis from their parents. However, Mata and Rudolf maintained the children were poised by a servant, and some historians still maintain the children were poisoned by enemies of Rudolf. Sadly, Norman-John did not survive the illness. The couple moved back to the Netherlands and separated in 1902. The divorce was finally finalised in 1906.

As a result of the divorce proceedings, Mata was awarded custody of Louise. Rudolf was ordered to pay child support but refused to do so. Mata and Louise struggled during this period and one day, when Louise was visiting her father, Rudolf decided not to return Louise to her mother. Mata accepted the situation as she believed Rudolf was a good father and couldn’t afford to pay for legal proceedings. Jeanne later died at the age of 21, possibly due to complications from her earlier illness.

Escape to Paris

Mata fled to Paris in 1903. She performed as a horse rider under the name Lady MacLeod at a circus, much to the disapproval of her ex-husband’s family. She struggled to make ends meet and, to scrape together a living, she posed as an artist’s model.

By 1904, Mata was living a wildly different life. She was becoming well known as an exotic dancer in the city’s vibrant adult scene and her act captivated audiences. Her openly flirtatious and sexy style, coupled with Asian and Egyptian dance influences, made her an instant hit. In 1905 she debuted at the Musée Guimet and, just like that, Mata Hari’s French adventure really took off.

Next time: A French adventure

That’s all for this week folks! Next week will explore the next chapter in the story of Mata Hari’s life, from her meteoric rise through Parisian society to the outbreak of the second world war and the decline of her time in the limelight.

Thumb: Everett Collection via Shutterstock.

William Nehra


William Nehra

William studied a masters in Classics at the University of Amsterdam. He is a big fan of Ancient History and football, particularly his beloved Watford FC.

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