Nicolaus Engelhard was born in Arnhem or Eelde (exactly where is unknown) on 1 December 1761. After performing various different functions in the service of the Dutch East Indies Company from 1778 onwards, he became Governor of Java’s north-east coast in 1801.
In 1808 Engelhard lost his position during the restructuring of Java into smaller provinces. This process was initiated by Herman Willem Daendels, who had been appointed Governor General of the Dutch East Indies in 1807. The measure was taken to improve the efficiency of the colony’s bureaucracy, and also to get rid of some representatives of the old establishment. Engelhard, his pride wounded, became one of the fiercest opponents of Daendels’ Java policy.
After years without a position, in 1816 Engelhard (together with J.A. van Middelkoop) was entrusted with the transfer of the administration of the Moluccas from the British to the Dutch. After his wife passed away he returned to The Netherlands, arriving in 1823. Because his business affairs had not run smoothly during his absence, in 1824 he returned once more to the Netherlands Indies, where he died on 31 May 1831.
Engelhard left an extensive archive of letters, official documents and drawings in the National Archives of the Netherlands in The Hague. Part of his archive is in the National Archives of Indonesia (Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia).