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“The Blind Traveller,” as James Holman was known. Hulton Archive // Getty Images

“World’s Greatest Traveller”

“He had eyes in his mouth, eyes in his nose, eyes in his ears, and eyes in his mind”

– William Jerdan

James Holman, was hailed as one of the ‘greatest wonders of the world he so sagaciously explored’. He was known simply as the Blind Traveller—a solitary, sightless adventurer who fought the slave trade in Africa, survived a frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon and helped chart the Australian outback. Once a celebrity, a bestselling author and inspiration to Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the charismatic, witty James Holman outlived his fame, dying in an obscurity.  Holman travelled a whopping quarter of a million miles in his lifetime – further than anyone had ever travelled before. It was a record that stood well into the twentieth century. And he did it, incredibly, despite being totally blind.

British adventurer and writer James Holman (1786-1857) became totally and permanently blind at the age of 25. He not only accepted his new condition but also coped with it with remarkable confidence and unwavering self-belief. In his lifetime, he is said to have covered more than 2,50,000 miles through five continents and 200 distinct cultures. As one historian points out, “Holman trekked deep into Siberia, sailed to Brazil, rode through Southern Africa, explored unmapped parts of Australia, and survived the bandit-infested Balkans.”
As interestingly, he tapped his way along the crumbling rim of a Vesuvian volcano, even as clouds of sulphurous gases billowed all around.
Holman joined the British Navy at the age of 12 and rose to become a lieutenant, before being physically afflicted and eventually losing his sight. How he undertook his daring travels across the globe with an iron-tipped stick; how he meticulously documented the many people and cultures that came along his way; how his travels and books earned him short-lived fame; and how he began receding in public memory, unjustly neglected in his own time and ending his days in penury…these are all part of the extraordinary life story of James Holman.
Holman began his ‘Grand Tour’ in 1819 and in the next couple of years, he had covered France, Italy, Switzerland, parts of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. In 1822, he ambled through parts of Russia, before returning home via Austria, Saxony, Prussia and Hanover. His travels between 1827 and 1832 across many countries resulted in the publication of A Voyage Round the World, including travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, etc. His last journeys took him to Spain, Portugal, Moldavia, Montenegro, Syria and Turkey.

Nobody aboard could see what had happened. It was midnight, and the HMS Saunders-Hill—a merchant vessel anchored along a sleepy bend of the River Thames—shuddered violently. Crewmen clambered from their beds and grasped at tilting walls. Cries filled the briny air. In the darkness, it was difficult to make sense of what had happened.

James Holman, one of the passengers who had rushed to the deck, expected to find the Saunders-Hill wrecked to splinters. Instead, he felt the boat—the whole boat—lurch from its anchorage and drift into the middle of the Thames.

The anchor chain had snapped. An errant coal ship, Holman would learn, had collided with the Saunders-Hill, sending the schooner’s rigging—the cat’s cradle of ropes, cables, and chains strung from the masts—bobbing in the current.

The good news was that the heaving ship remained afloat. Holman, a former sailor in the Royal Navy, clutched a railing and inched his way toward the helm to assist the captain.

The captain was not there.

Still robed in his white nightgown, Holman grabbed the wheel and started to steer the Saunders-Hill himself. In the distance, the captain—who was attending to an emergency elsewhere—barked directions to turn port and starboard. The boat steadied, the wake settled, and Holman navigated the damaged ship to a nearby harbour for repairs.

When the skipper of the Saunders-Hill returned to the helm, his jaw dropped. He had caught glimpses of Holman’s white nightgown from across the deck and assumed the person guiding the boat was his wife.

Instead, he discovered a 36-year-old blind man.

“The Blind Traveller,” as James Holman was known, had recently finished writing his first book. The Narrative of a Journey, Undertaken in the Years 1819, 1820, & 1821, Through France, Italy, Savoy, Switzerland, Parts of Germany Bordering on the Rhine, Holland, and the Netherlands. Comprising Incidents that occurred to the author, who has long suffered under a total deprivation of sight; with various points of Information collected on his Tour.

The windy title said it all: For nearly two years, Holman, a native of England, had journeyed across Europe alone and blind. His account became a bestseller and critical success. The British Critic praised Holman’s first book as “a specimen of how much might be done by an active and energetic spirit.”

“Energetic” is an understatement. Holman was a hurricane of audacity, goodwill, and charm. He meandered into each foreign country with no itinerary, no grasp of the language, and no prior relationships with anyone who lived there and then proceeded to explore thoroughly. Many times he entered a village as a pitied stranger and left as an admired gentleman.

After gallivanting through Europe, Holman boarded the HMS Saunders-Hill in 1822 and aimed his sails for St. Petersburg, Russia—the first stop on his attempt to circle the globe. Holman had a loose idea of his circumnavigation route: spend winter in western Russia, traverse Siberia the following spring, pass through Mongolia, sneak into China, hop on a whaling ship set for Hawaii, and improvise onward.

In his celebrated debut non-fiction work, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveller, Jason Roberts reveals that Holman was in many ways the quintessential world explorer: a dashing mix of discipline, recklessness, and accomplishment, a Knight of Windsor, Fellow of the Royal Society, and bestselling author.
“He journeyed alone,” writes Roberts. “He entered each country not knowing a single word of the local language. He had only enough money to travel in native fashion, in public carriages and peasant carts, on horseback and on foot…in an era when the blind were routinely warehoused in asylums, Holman could be found studying medicine in Edinburgh, fighting the slave trade in Africa (where the Holman river was named in his honour), hunting rogue elephants in Ceylon, and surviving a frozen captivity in Siberia.
He helped unlock the puzzle of Equatorial Guinea’s indigenous language, averting bloodshed in the process. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin cites him as an authority on the fauna of the Indian Ocean. In his commentary on The Arabian Nights, Sir Richard Francis Burton (who spent years following in his footsteps) pays tribute to both the man and his fame by referring to him not by name, but simply as the ‘Blind Traveller’.”

In an era when blind people were unceremoniously evicted from civil society, it was but natural that Holman faced many questions about his travels. “I am constantly asked, and I may as well answer the question here once for all, what is the use of travelling to one who cannot see? I answer; does every traveller see all that he describes? — and is not every traveller obliged to depend upon others for a great proportion of the information he collects?

The plan was ambitious, if not crazy. In the early 1820s there was no such thing as an amateur, independent circumnavigator.  There were people whose careers had carried them around the world—sailors, merchants, diplomats, missionaries, and a handful of naturalists—but no one had yet succeeded in doing so solely for the experience.” Travel was a practical matter, not something you did for fun.

It made even less sense to start in Russia. Foreigners of all stripes were regarded with suspicion there and risked deportation. With success uncertain, Holman concealed his trip’s true purpose and fibbed to anybody who inquired about it. He was merely in Russia to visit a friend, he’d say. “I was always particularly cautious in divulging my real plans,” Holman wrote in Travels Through Russia.

The adventure didn’t start smoothly. The HMS Saunders-Hill nearly sunk in the Thames and was later briefly detained off the Russian coast by a band of inebriated customs officers who demanded brandy in exchange for a passport stamp. “I trust that these unpleasant traits of Russian character will be softened down on a more intimate acquaintance,” Holman wrote.

Saint Petersburg, Russia, the first stop on Holman’s attempt to circle the globe. iStock

Impressions improved in St. Petersburg, where ambassadors and diplomats invited him to dine on fish pies, reindeer tongue, and “a peculiar kind of pancake, named waffle, which is in the form of an oblong square, made in a mould.” He embarked for Moscow the next spring, enduring a seven-week carriage-ride along a rocky, unfinished road ringed by thickets of fir trees.

In the Russian capital, Holman threw himself into the city with his customary zeal.

James Holman was a blind man who loved to go sightseeing. He visited art museums, toured cathedrals, and hiked mountains. He was an acute observer. He could differentiate the social status of a passerby just by listening to their footsteps. (The clip-clop of upper crust footwear had a distinctly patrician timbre.) As his friend William Jerden wrote in the book Men I Have Known, “He had eyes in his mouth, eyes in his nose, eyes in his ears, and eyes in his mind, never blinking, but ready on all occasions to perform his services with remarkable precision and efficiency.”

Holman would physically touch practically anything to gain a better understanding of his surroundings. He’d glide his hands over brick walls, sculptures, and, on occasion, people. “This is what the contemporary travel writer may have to do.

But Holman’s habit of literally feeling his way through Russia sometimes landed him in trouble. The security guards watching the Kremlin’s Treasury Room—home to the czar’s thrones, jewels, and crowns—fumed when Holman plopped down onto Boris Godonov’s old throne. Days later, Holman shamelessly climbed into the Tsar Cannon, a legendary 17.5-foot-long wide-barreled mortar. “I much astonished the sergeant who accompanied us, by coolly taking off my coat, and creeping to the bottom of it,” he wrote.

One of the most common reasons for travelling is simply to get away. Freud said that we travel to escape father and the family and to this we might add the familiar. There is a recurrent human desire to drop our lives, to walk out of them. We all have this fantasy.

Perhaps in the future we shall have to travel like James Holman, who, after being invalided out of the British Navy because of blindness, set out in 1819 to see the world. Travelling alone, speaking no foreign language, using only public transport, Holman returned home to publish several thick volumes about his travels. He rarely felt, he said, that he had missed anything through being blind. (At one point, he met a deaf man and they travelled together.)

Holman’s antics in Moscow didn’t last long. Siberia loomed before him, and he needed every sunbeam to survive the 3500-mile journey. He hired a driver to steer a wagon, and stockpiled medicine, tea, sugar, six bottles of brandy, six bottles of French wine, some cups, bags of coinage, and one teapot.

This leg of the trip didn’t start smoothly either. Soon after they left, Holman and his driver became lost and, in the heat of bickering about directions, realized they had no way to communicate. The road, potholed and planked with fallen trees, turned their springless cart into an instrument of torture. “No position within the carriage was tenable,” Holman complained, “and the shocks it gave my brain so excessive, that it felt every instant ready to burst out of its tenement.”

Thankfully, happier conditions lay ahead. In the city of Vladimer, the local citizenry chauffeured Holman to a cathedral to see a “fine painting of St. Vladimer.” In the province of Nizhny Novgorod, the Prince of Georgia invited him to a stately dinner and a guided tour of a local monastery, where the monks played a “very grave game of nine-pins.”

Tsar Cannon Postcard. Late 19th-early 20th century. The Tsar Cannon is a unique item of the Kremlin’s artillery collection. It was created in 1586 in Moscow’s Cannon Court by eminent Russian cannon-caster Andrei Chokhov on the order of Tsar Feodor Ioannovich, the sovereign ruler of All Great Russia. The Tsar Cannon is located on the west side of Ivanov Square, between the Ivan-the-Great Bell-Tower and the Twelve Apostles’ Church. Judging by the Tsar Cannon’s calibre of 890 mm, it was given its name as the worlds biggest cannon. The gun’s tube’s weight is about 40 ton, its length is 5,34 m. The cannon’s surface is adorned with the cast figured friezes, vegetation ornament, memorial inscriptions and an equestrian image of Tsar Feodor Ioannovich. In 1835, the Tsar Cannon was fixed on the carriage specially cast for it at the Berdt’s factory in St. Petersburg. Four hollow decorative cannonballs were made at the same time. The Tsar Cannon has never shot. Mostly of symbolic impact, it was never used in a war. Initially, the Tsar Cannon was fixed on Red Square near the Spasskiye Gate. In 1706, it was moved into the Kremlin, fixed at first in the Arsenals inner yard and then at the main gate (with another cannon). In 1835, the two cannons were staged on the new bases, specially cast on the project of A. Bryullov. In 1843, the Tsar Cannon and other old Russian cannons were placed in front of the Armoury Chamber’s old building in the opposite of the Arsenal. The captured cannons were left by the Arsenal.

Tsar Cannon. In 1960, when the Palace of Congresses (now it is named the Kremlin’s State Palace) was under construction, the building of the Armoury Chamber (architect I. Yegotov) was dismantled. The old cannons were transferred to the Arsenals building. Later Tsar Cannon was fixed on its present-day place. Tsar Cannon, its base and cannonballs were renovated in the 1970s.

Burrowing deeper into Russia, greetings gave way to glares. In Kazan, a policeman tailed him. In Malmyzh, an official accosted him and insisted he stay for an “interview.” (Believing “it was impossible a blind person could be travelling in the way I appeared to travel,” officials suspected Holman of espionage.)

To be fair, it was easy to confuse Holman for a secret agent or a madman. Holman knew it. “When my intention first began to transpire at Moscow, every one made it his business to demonstrate the madness and absurdity of attempting so dangerous, uninteresting, and disagreeable a journey,” he wrote. “The name of Siberia … seemed connected in their minds only with sentiments of horror.”

For good reason. Siberia was an immense outdoor prison. Beginning in the 17th century, criminals, POWs, and political enemies were exiled to desolation and doomed to work (sometimes for the rest of their lives) in salt and silver mines. Holman passed these prisoners on his travels: chain gangs of men or women, handcuffed in pairs, solemnly marching a dusty road.

Even for a free man travelling by cart, the trip was miserable. After cresting the Ural Mountains, the team plodded through the boggy grasslands of the Baraba Steppe. The air was mosquito soup. “The most noxious and disagreeable tract of country in Siberia,” Holman called it. It was there his driver got an eye infection, leaving the duo with only one functioning eye between them.

Holman (in the cart) passes through Bogorodsk, Russia. British Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain.

In September 1823, Holman arrived in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, where locals celebrated his arrival with dinners and dances. A friendship blossomed between Holman and the Governor General of Eastern Siberia, Aleksandr Stapnovich Lavinski, to whom Holman spilt his secret.

“I therefore presumed to communicate to him, what I had done to no other person before, an outline of the plan I had decided upon for my future proceedings, and which was no less than to complete the tour of the world,” he wrote.

Weeks later, a Russian military courier came to Irkutsk. The Emperor had sent him. He had orders to see the so-called Blind Traveller with his own eyes.

James Holman was not born blind. Raised near an apothecary in Exeter, England, Holman enjoyed a healthy childhood and enlisted with the Royal Navy at age 12. (One of the first ships he sailed, the HMS Cambrian, was supposed to hunt privateers but accidentally exchanged more gunfire with a lighthouse than it did with hostile vessels.)

For seven years, Holman bounced between ports and lived on open seas with little complaint. That is, until age 19, when the third lieutenant felt an odd throbbing in his feet.

The pain was a classic sign of rheumatism, a woefully vague seafaring sickness that Holman chose to ignore—until the agony intensified. His ankles ballooned to a size that made it impossible to slip boots on, and the ship’s doctor, at a loss for real remedies, likely prescribed the teenage sailor little more than wine and rest.

Holman’s health swung on a pendulum. He got better. Then worse. Better. Worse. On rough seas, the pitching ship was enough to make his bones scream. In Nova Scotia, a doctor who believed that blisters could alleviate the young man’s symptoms likely treated him by exposing his skin to the glowing tip of a hot metal poker.

It didn’t work. Desperate for a solution, Holman visited the hot springs and spas of Bath, a fashionable resort for convalescents, and dipped himself into steamy waters. Day by day, his joint pain subsided.

A 1850s photograph of Green Street. Bath is the largest city in the ceremonial county of Somerset, England, known for its Roman-built baths.

19th-century Photochrom of the Great Bath at the Roman Baths. The entire structure above the level of the pillar bases is a later construction and was not a feature of the building in Roman days.

The cause of what happened next remains a mystery. As the pain left Holman’s joints, it surged inside his eyeballs. Holman’s sight clouded. Then it vanished.

Panicked, the 25-year-old consulted doctors and quacks alike. Dozens of people held out the promise that he might regain his sight, but no solution turned up, and months of false guarantees and misplaced hope made Holman miserable. “The suspense which I suffered, during the period when my medical friends were uncertain of the issue, appeared to me a greater misery than the final knowledge of the calamity itself,” he wrote.

In the early nineteenth century, blind people were given bowls to beg with and rags to cover their eyes, but James Holman refused to wear a blindfold and managed to overcome the social stigma of blindness and became a celebrity traveller and best-selling author. When doctors told him that there was no cure for his blindness, James Holman went to Edinburgh and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

He was about a decade older than most students and at that time Braille hadn’t been invented so he couldn’t read textbooks but he managed to complete his studies by repeatedly attending lectures. His doctor advised him to leave Scotland and recommended travel to a warmer climate.

For the rest of Holman’s life, the pangs in his bones came and went. But his sight never returned. And seven years after going blind, when Holman’s joints wailed again, a doctor suggested a warmer climate might do his body good. Why not visit the Mediterranean? With little to lose, Holman gave the doctor’s idea a try. On his 32nd birthday, October 15, 1819, he boarded a ship at Dover, England and sailed for France.

The trip would forever change him. Whilst his ailments were never properly diagnosed he would independently find the treatment that kept him at his healthiest. That treatment was to travel.

Holman’s ultimate though not always admitted goal was to circumnavigate the world as a solo traveller.  This would be no mean feat for any traveller today, in the early 1800s, it was a quest not undertaken by many.  Not only was there no TripAdvisor available to the Blind Traveler, there were no maps or guides available for where he wanted to go – he wouldn’t have been able to read them at the time even if there was.  Undertaking such a mission whilst also being totally blind and somewhat incapacitated is a mind-blowing challenge.  It was one (amongst many others) that James Holman took on with zeal.

Holman’s first adventure began with abandonment. After spending four drizzly days sardined in a carriage—time he spent nursing a bottle of wine and munching on cow tongue—the coach halted in Bordeaux, France. As the other passengers scurried into the downpour, nobody helped Holman out. “What could I do?” he wrote. “Had I jumped out, I should not have known what step to have taken next.”

So Holman sat in the carriage alone, waited, and listened.

Raindrops. The tumble of a nearby river. Mud-sogged footsteps. The distant conversation grew into a babble of “loud and unintelligible gibberish.” Suddenly, Holman felt a strange sensation as the carriage lulled to and fro in an “irregular kind of motion.”

Holman didn’t know that his fellow passengers had boarded a ferry and left him alone in the carriage, which had been thrust onto a raft. He was being towed down the Dordogne River with their luggage. They had, in fact, been using him for ballast.

Conditions improved once Holman asserted himself as something other than a human sandbag. In Montpellier, a noblewoman welcomed him into her mansion. In Marseilles, he skinny-dipped in the ocean. In Nice, he harvested grapes on a vineyard estate. Holman’s spirits brightened. On beautiful days, he’d jump out of the carriage he was riding in and tie a leash to it so he could walk down the road without wandering into a ditch. At first, other passengers thought he was a loon. But soon fellow travellers flocked around him as though he were a blind Pied Piper.

It wasn’t the warmer climate that improved his attitude. It was the novelty of life on the road. He was compelled to keep travelling because that was the only thing that distracted him from his pain. He was undergoing extreme pain and transmuting that pain into experience. With no concrete destination in mind, he roamed farther.

Holman was an adept navigator. Instead of surveying sidewalks with a long sweep of a cane, he carried a metal-tipped walking stick that he repeatedly tapped on the ground. Like a dolphin, he manoeuvred via echolocation and listened to the thuds and clinks of his walking stick ricochet off his surroundings.

In Rome, he climbed Trajan’s Pillar, Palatine Hill, the Tarpeian Rock, and Monte Testaccio in one day. The guide he hired failed to keep up. Holman even tried to scale the top of St. Peter’s Basilica. (Guards denied him the ascent—not because of his blindness, it should be noted, but because of his Britishness: The last time a Briton had climbed to the Holy See’s summit, the Union Jack was unfurled and set aflutter.)

On one cloudless night, Holman climbed Mount Vesuvius and stood at the edge of the lower caldera, feeling the magma rumble under his boots. When somebody asked if he needed help, Holman declined by saying he could “see things better with my feet.”

The gadabout moved onward. In fact, in Naples, Holman bumped into an old friend who, to his surprise, had also suffered a sensory loss. (His unnamed buddy had gone deaf.) After catching up, the two men decided to wander Europe together and progressed 115 miles to Rome walking arm in arm.

It may be regarded as a curious incident in our travelling connexion,—that I should want sight, and he hearing,” Holman wrote. “The circumstance is somewhat droll, and afforded considerable amusement to those whom we travelled with, so that we were not frequently exposed to a jest on the subject, which we generally participated in, and sometimes contributed to improve.”

It was like a 19th-century buddy-cop adventure movie. Holman used his ears and voice to negotiate with innkeepers and carriage drivers, while his friend used his eyes to read receipts and contracts and describe the passing scenery (mountains, architecture, and women). By the time the two departed modern Italy, Holman had travelled so much that he needed a new passport, “the old one having been filled up at every point with signs and countersigns,” he said.

He continued to Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands before returning alone to Britain in 1821.

James Holman, who had left England an invalid, returned home an explorer.

The deeper James Holman went into Siberia, the more he was hassled. British Library, Wikimedia Commons

Three years later, Holman’s first attempt to circle the globe was frozen in southeastern Siberia by a Feldjäger. Members of the czar’s official corps of couriers, Feldjägers were tasked with transporting messages—and, in some cases, suspicious individuals—in and out of the Motherland. They had menacing reputations. On his travels through Russia, writer Marquis de Custine said that a Feldjäger’s smile was “ferocious by its very immobility.”

Feldjäger Kolovin found Holman in Irkutsk and delivered his message: You’re coming with me.

Holman was despondent, writing that “The intelligence I had received acted almost as an electric shock upon me.” He begged the Governor-General to allow him to stay—the Mongolian border was within reach—but the request was denied.

“I did not conceive that they could suspect me of any motives or conduct obnoxious to their feelings,” Holman wrote with bafflement. “Yet it appeared singular, that I should be regarded of sufficient importance to have a lieutenant of the corps of feld-jagers sent a distance of four thousand miles to attend my movements and watch over me.”

On January 18, 1824, Holman reluctantly boarded a sled with Feldjäger Kolovin and glided west over the frozen Angara River toward Moscow. Dreams of China faded behind him as the four horses tugging the sledge galloped at dangerous speeds. When one horse collapsed 50 miles into their journey, the Feldjäger left it to die on the roadside. Holman asked who would pay for the wheezing animal. The Feldjäger‘s response: You do.

The trip was an odyssey of near-death experiences. One day, the sledge nearly careened off a cliff and, a few hours later, almost pulverized a peasant’s cart. The Feldjäger caned his driver with the steel sheath of his sword for the accidents. Yet he insisted they keep a breakneck pace. Put simply, everybody got acquainted with the taste of Siberian snow. When the group arrived in Moscow, a Kalmyk slave (Kalmyk, also spelt Kalmuck, Mongol people residing chiefly in Kalmykiya republic, in southwestern Russia) who had accompanied the crew removed his boots only to discover that his right big toe had fallen off. His feet were so numb from the journey, he never noticed.

In Moscow, authorities held Holman prisoner. They locked him in a hotel and forbade him from writing to friends or speaking English with visitors. The master of police assigned a spy to sit in Holman’s room and monitor his movements. After Holman was cleared, the Feldjäger dumped him off at the Russian border.

The Blind Traveller clutched his walking stick and aimed westward. He would have to try again.

The reason for Holman’s deportation is unclear. Russian officials were acting cagy or condescending: Either they refused to believe that a sightless man could travel such distances—was he a spy faking blindness?—or they believed Holman was a risk to his own well-being. Whatever the reason, it all swings to the same stereotype: Disability was supposed to mean immobility.

Mark Twain expressed a similar sentiment, “If you want dwarfs—I mean just a few dwarfs for a curiosity—go to Genoa …” he wrote. “But if you would see a fair average style of assorted cripples, go to Naples, or travel through the Roman States. But if you would see the very heart and home of cripples and human monsters, both, go straight to Constantinople.”

While Twain’s choice of words may chafe modern ears, they illustrate a pernicious trope that Holman constantly faced: People with disabilities were considered a “fixed site.” A blind man simply wasn’t supposed to be wandering around alone. (And as literary historian Eitan Bar-Yosef wrote it’s an odd attitude considering the amount of travelling people with disabilities have made throughout history. Back during the Roman Empire, it wasn’t unusual to see convalescents flocking to the steamy waters of Bath, England. Beginning in the mid-1860s, many disabled Europeans took pilgrimages to Lourdes, France, to visit the healing grotto where the Virgin Mary was believed to have visited Saint Bernadette Soubirous.)

Grotto of Massabielle in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, France in the 19th century.

Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in the Grotto.

And when Holman’s travel books began to fly off the shelves, that attitude supplied the venom that fueled his critics. In fact, some argued that because Holman was blind, his accomplishments were not accomplishments at all. Their reasoning: If a blind man could travel thousands of miles alone, then anybody could. Move along, they told readers, nothing to be impressed about here.

“Who will then say that Siberia is a wild, inhospitable, or impassible country, when even the blind can traverse it with safety?” wondered John D. Cochrane, a traveller who, with tints of jealousy, had also journeyed across Russia (and would soon disappear in the jungles of South America, never to emerge). Other critics questioned why Holman bothered to travel at all, as if the joys of rambling were reserved only for those with operating optic nerves.

Holman brushed it all off. He insisted that everybody was blind, in a way: “Does every traveller see all that he describes?” he wrote. “And is not every traveller obliged to depend upon others for a great proportion of the information he collects?”

Holman was not one to romanticize his blindness, but he did believe it gave him advantages—especially as an author. Unlike most travel writers, whose descriptions largely depended on their own flighty impressions, Holman had to compensate for his lack of vision by talking to locals and other vagabonds. Like an investigative reporter or an anthropologist, Holman steeped himself in a culture and collected a wide range of views and experiences, gathering information that lone travel writers might have missed.

Holman had little choice but to pay greater attention to his surroundings. Where a sighted person might quickly charge up a mountain trail, Holman had to advance cautiously, focusing on details that sighted people might not think twice about: ankle-busting roots, the sound of dirt crumbling beneath his shoes, the rasp of pebbles sliding down a nearby precipice. To navigate, Holman had to listen to the blanket of silence unique to the loneliest mountaintops, had to deliberately smell the perfume of alpine forests. These sensations came together to paint scenes in the mind’s eye. Sherlock Holmes nailed it when he said, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” Holman couldn’t see, but he observed them.

We use vision as a means of simplifying the world. We look at a wall and go, ‘Oh, a brick wall! But if you’re blind, and you’re touching those bricks, every one of those bricks announces its individuality. In this way, haptic perception—that is, our sense of touch—can be far more complicated than visual information. Imagine a room of chairs, If you’re a sighted person, somebody could move them around without you ever noticing. But a blind person? They notice. They notice the individual chair.”

In other words, Holman may have been robbed of his sight, but he responded by becoming a noticing machine.

“The picturesque in nature, it is true, is shut out from me,” Holman said. “But perhaps this very circumstance affords a stronger zest to curiosity, which is thus impelled to a more close and searching examination of details than would be considered necessary to a traveller who might satisfy himself by the superficial view, and rest content with the first impressions conveyed through the eye. Deprived of that organ of information, I am compelled to adopt a more rigid and less suspicious course of inquiry, and to investigate analytically, by a train of patient examination, suggestions, and deductions, which other travellers dismiss at first sight.”

Not to be dismissed himself, Holman did not wait long to begin his second bid to circumnavigate the planet.

A Royal Navy Ship catches a slave ship. Holman would join such an expedition on his second attempt around the world. Arthur H. Clark, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain.

Wood boards creaked, crockery clanged, and chests skidded from wall to wall as the HMS Eden pitched over foamy seas. It was August 1827, and Holman’s newest floating home was barreling into a squall. Destination: Africa.

Once again, Holman told friends that the trip was for a health-boost. He knew the explanation was a stretch. “That a man should visit Sierra Leone for the benefit of his health, seems to be … unreasonable,” he wrote. Malaria and dysentery were frequent visitors on such trips. He understood that death was possible.

Indeed, when the ship made a brief pit stop in Africa, the crew was greeted by a man named Mr Lewis. The transplanted Englishman warned the sailors of insect-borne diseases and boasted that he had discovered an “infallible method of keeping off the fever, namely by the use of brandy and water and cigars.”

Within a week, Mr Lewis was dead.

After a three-month voyage, the HMS Eden dropped anchor in a bay of black mud. They had arrived at the island of Fernando Pó—today called Bioko—22 miles off the southern coast of Cameroon. Within minutes of dropping anchor, canoes circled the ship. Natives grasping barbed spears and slings eyed the Europeans suspiciously. Peaceful relations were established only after the crew cautiously bartered iron in exchange for yams, palm-wine, fish, and monkey skins.

Holman formed a special connection with indigenous peoples. At one point, while on land, he extended his hand to a native and was led deep into the bush. When he emerged, Holman had written the first dictionary translating some of their language to English. (Some selections: “Topy” for wine, “Epehaunah” for a purse made of sheep scrotum, and “Booyah” for mouth.)

The Eden, however, didn’t drop anchor at Fernando Pó for linguistics research—the vessel was there to chase slave ships. The British Empire, which had abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, regularly ordered Royal Navy ships to patrol the African coast. At the height of the mission, about one sixth of the Royal Navy’s fleet was cruising West African waters.

Fernando Pó seemed an ideal place to establish camp. The volcanic island stood sentry to a large river that the ship’s captain, Fitzwilliam Owen, knew was a favoured route of slave traders. Holman harboured confusing feelings about slavery. On the one hand, he was an apologist who believed slavery had the potential to yield “some prospect of improvement in the moral and physical circumstances of the negro.” Yet, on the other hand, the way it was practised disgusted him. “The sight of the poor Africans, taken from their homes by force, condemned to banishment, and exposed for sale, like herds of cattle, in the marketplace of a foreign country, is dismal and humiliating.”

Holman would join a slave-ship hunt on one mission, helping chase three slave schooners up Nigeria’s Calabar River. Later, the Eden would capture three slave ships and save more than 330 human beings.

The Eden‘s position at Fernando Pó came with a cost, however. As expected, malaria sent scores of men to their sick beds—and death beds. Holman almost joined them. “Although so many persons were dying around me, I still maintained my cheerful spirits,” he said, “to which circumstance I attribute the restoration of my health, which was now daily improving.” By mission’s end, more than 90 percent of the crew would die. Holman was among 12 lucky survivors.

After his stint in Africa, a flurry of adventuring followed so full and varied it’s difficult to distill (Holman’s own account ran to several volumes), but here are some high points.

From Africa, Holman slunk onto a Dutch vessel and sailed the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro. Pneumonia greeted him in the Americas, but again he refused to let illness stop adventure. When offered the chance to tour the gold mines of Gongo Soco in the Brazilian rainforest, Holman abandoned his bed in favour of a mule.

For weeks, a frail Holman straggled through a humid tropical fug while sitting atop a donkey (which he ministered to by pouring Cachaça—a rummy analgesic booze—down its ears and throat). He rarely dismounted. Or bathed. Larvae burrowed into his skin. His incompetent guides forgot to bring food, with the exception of a single chicken. Ever the optimist, Holman said the trip helped “quicken the stagnant blood and stimulate the nerves.”

Holman looped to Rio and backtracked to Africa—this time, South Africa. He filled his time at sea with the routine: eating breakfast, drinking tea, listening to a volunteer read to him, wandering the ship, lassoing sailors into conversation, drinking tea, eating dinner, drinking tea (he was British), more reading. On fair nights he’d climb above deck, lie down, and sleep to the sound of ruffling sails.

In South Africa, Holman learned how to ride a galloping horse, which he guided by listening to the drumbeat of hooves. He plunged into the African forest, forded the Great Fish River, and met a Gaika chief who, in exchange for rum, offered visitors private time with his 12 wives. (Holman appears to have demurred.)

Later, back at sea, Holman crossed paths with a British diplomat named Dr Robert Lyall who’d been accused of sorcery in Madagascar and was now on the run. Lyall advised Holman to avoid the country. Naturally, Holman couldn’t resist doing something he was told not to do and visited Madagascar. He left unscathed.

An illustration of Fernando Po, now known as a Bioko. The British Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain.

From there, the adventurer island-hopped to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), where he joined an elephant hunt. Traditionally, hunters captured elephants by driving the animals up a hill and sending a quiver of arrows into their feet, moving in for the kill once the elephant lost balance. Holman’s crew was less sophisticated: They brought guns. (They even gave a firearm to Holman, who, despite taking part in target practice, wisely kept his finger off the trigger.) Holman described the “extremely dangerous” road as “infested” with elephants. At one point, he barely escaped a stampede.

From Ceylon, he sailed to India, past the islands of Pressurin and Junk-Ceylon, into Penang, and through the straits of Malacca where his vessel dodged pirates. In the China Sea, he skirted around islands with “uncouth names [that] would not be very agreeable to the ears of those who do not understand them.” His chest fluttered with excitement. Ever since his ouster from Russia, he had dreamed of the Far East. “My heart beat with tumultuous delight at the thought of having at length planted my foot upon the Chinese territory.”

The Chinese were not so delighted. They had strict rules regarding foreigners and confined Holman to a tiny riverbank community, a hong that housed Englishmen and other foreign “barbarians.” The local children mocked the English-speakers, hurling stones and verbal insults at the so-called “foreign devils.” Holman brushed off the hostilities by smoking opium (it gave him a headache) and going shopping. He bought a bamboo hat and had his mind blown by a … giant punch bowl. “I could not encircle it with my arms,” he wrote in amazement.

Back at sea, Holman needled the Straits of Banca, eluded Malay Pirates, and heard sailors holler “Land, Ho!” in Australia.

Sydney greeted him with fanfare. As the Sydney Morning Herald recounted: “On Sunday week Lieutenant Holman, the blind traveller, was seen on horseback with a party of gentlemen quite at ease, and riding as if possessed with every faculty; on coming to a corner of a street, the word was given to him, and he turned the animal in a sharp trot with the utmost confidence, to the no small astonishment of the spectators.”

In Australia, Holman joined a Lewis-and-Clark-like expedition to find passage to a promising but uncharted spit of land on the continent’s southeastern lip. The adventure was “much more romantic and perilous than we had any idea of when we started on our expedition,” he recalled. The crew—which included Holman, a convict, two aboriginal guides, and two free Australians—crept over crags, past the yips of wild dogs, and through swamps and marshes. When their rations ran low, they ate squirrel and opossum. At one point, their horses went missing.

Holman loved every minute.

James Holman. Jason Roberts Collection.

After Australia, he spirited across the Pacific, around Cape Horn, and uneventfully voyaged homeward. In 1832, Holman, now 45, landed in Britain. He had travelled the world.

The account of his circumnavigation could not, and did not, fit into one book. It took four. Combined, the volumes of A Voyage Round the World, Including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, etc., etc., from MDCCCXXVII to MDCCCXXXII are nearly 2000 pages long. Not only the record of an extraordinary journey, the books read like Protozoan forms of modern anthropology. “If I have thrown a single ray of light, where light had not fallen before, I shall be satisfied,” Holman wrote.

It would not be his last adventure. Holman would travel the globe once more, zigzagging for 10 years across Ireland, the Mediterranean Sea, Greek islands, the Holy Land, North Africa, Syrian cities, Slavic countries, and nearly every European city he had missed on his first tour. He went out of his way to visit new places, rarely retracing his steps.

History has bestowed the title of “World’s Greatest Traveller” to many people: Marco Polo, Xuanzang, Ibn Battuta, James Cook, and Rabban Bar Sauma, to name a few. But Holman beat them all. By his death at 70 in 1857, the blind man had walked, climbed, ridden, hiked, and sailed a total distance equal to travelling to the moon. In terms of mileage and the number of cultures he encountered, Holman died as the well-travelled explorer in world history.

After Holman died an autobiography supposed to have been finished by him just days before his death was never recovered.
It took almost 150 years after his death for interest to be revived in Holman’s life story. Three years of painstaking research resulted in the publication of A Sense of the World, reigniting the memory of Holman in contemporary readers. During the course of his writing, Roberts found Holman to be not just a profoundly inspiring figure, but one of history’s most richly lived lives. He was also “a whirlwind of incongruities: an intrepid invalid, a poet-turned-warrior-turned-wanderer, a solitary man who remained deeply engaged with humanity…and connected to the business of life.”

While his early works were generally well received, only partially as a novelty, over time competitors and skeptics introduced doubt into the public consciousness about the reliability of Holman’s “observations”. In a time when blind people were thought to be almost totally helpless, and usually given a bowl to beg with, Holman’s ability to sense his surroundings by the reverberations of a tapped cane or horse’s hoof-beats was unfathomable.

A Sense of the World  How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveller

A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became … – Amazon.com

Great British Nutters: James Holman: the Blind Traveller

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Tales of a Blind Traveler : NPR

James Holman – Wikipedia

James Holman – The Blind Traveller | Blind As A Backpack

The Blind Traveler: How James Holman Felt His Way Around the …

Who is James Holman? — The Holman Prize

James Holman, The Blind Traveler | Peace Requires Anarchy

James Holman, the blind traveler, became a celebrity traveler and best …

The blind traveller – Deccan Herald

How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler – NoveList Select.

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A Sense of the World | Jason Roberts [.net]

The Blind Traveller – Five Guys Facts – Medium

In October the Blind Traveller embarked on a novel excursion to Jervis …

 


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