James Holman racked up more than a quarter of a million miles in his lifetime—further than anyone had ever traveled before. As Eitan Bar-Yosef points out, his exploits are the stuff that once filled the pages of boys’ annuals and penny magazines: a naval career that began when he was a child; fighting the slave trade in Africa (where the Holman River was named in his honor); being wrongly accused of spying in Siberia; and surviving a bout of malaria that killed all but eleven of his crew mates in Equatorial Guinea. He also penned five books, two of which were bestsellers.
Despite these dizzying achievements, Holman’s name has gradually disappeared from our collective consciousness. No publisher would accept his fourth book, which detailed his travels in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Nor would they accept his memoir. A brief sketch of his life in the Encyclopedia Britannica dwindled to a single paragraph in the 1910 edition. When another edition of the encyclopedia was printed in 1960, his name was missing altogether. Why did the self-styled “Blind Traveller” go from celebrated author to threadbare old man living in poverty?
Jason Roberts, whose book, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became the World’s Greatest Traveller, spearheaded the revival of interest in Holman nearly 150 years after his death, believes this reflects the nineteenth-century’s derogatory attitude to blind people.
“Another professional adventurer whose expedition was eclipsed by Holman’s leveled a charge that took root in public perception: his sightlessness made genuine insight impossible,” Roberts writes. “He might have been in Zanzibar, but how could the Blind Traveller claim to know Zanzibar? He was rarely doubted—his firsthand facts were unassailably accurate—but he was increasingly ignored.”
The more Holman traveled and wrote, the less frequently he mentioned his blindness, writes Mark Paterson. In the foreword of the catchily titled In A Voyage Round the World, Including Travels in Africa , Asia , Australasia, America etc, Holman drew on Plato’s ideas to present his condition as something allowing him to truly see without jumping to conclusions based on appearances—something with which the sighted often struggle.
Holman’s life could be defined by highs and lows. Born in Exeter in 1786, he joined the Royal Navy somewhere between the ages of ten and twelve. He served for a dozen years and rose to the rank of lieutenant, but his promising career was cut short when he developed a rare form of arthritis that left him bed bound. Blindness soon followed. Railing against the doctors’ predictions and determined to cure himself, he enrolled in Edinburgh University to study medicine. Because Braille was yet to be invented, he attended lectures multiple times to memorize them and cajoled classmates into reading textbooks to him.
Coming to the conclusion that his condition was permanent, Holman took the small pension afforded him by the Royal Navy and set out on a Grand Tour of Europe. In France, he tied a length of rope to a carriage and jogged alongside it for hours. In Italy, he hiked to the top of Mount Vesuvius while it was active and stood so close to the crater that he singed his walking stick.
While staying in the UK just long enough to dictate his first book (another catchy title: The narrative of a journey undertaken in the years 1819, 1820 and 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), Holman hatched a daring plan to circumnavigate the globe. Because he could ill afford sea voyages, he decided to undertake as much of the journey as possible by public transport—which meant crossing Siberia. Ignoring numerous dire warnings about the dangers of this wilderness, he trundled off in a rickety wagon with a generous supply of brandy and tea.
The journey was a disaster. For weeks, both Holman and his driver ate nothing but stale bread. When he heard the rattle of chains, Holman knew he was passing another column of convicts damned to an eastern exile. Upon arriving in Irkutsk, he was arrested as a spy, loaded onto a high-speed sled, and forcibly taken to the Polish border.
A shaken Holman arrived home in 1824 to find good news awaiting him: his European book was a runaway success, and he could finally afford to travel by sea. After dashing out a second successful book about his Siberian escapades, he headed for Africa aboard the HMS Eden. After narrowly surviving a malaria epidemic, he hitched a ride on a Dutch boat bound for Brazil. From there, he embarked on his adventure in earnest, sailing to South Africa, Zanzibar (which he crossed on foot), and Mauritius. Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Calcutta, and Canton (now Guangzhou) followed. From China he headed to Australia, where he also crossed Tasmania on foot. Then it was across the Pacific, round the tip of South America, back to Brazil, and finally home to Blighty in 1832.
Holman went to work on his third book, A Voyage round the World, including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America &, from 1827 to 1832. Despite the daring nature of his journey, it wasn’t well received. The Blind Traveller’s novelty had worn off, it seemed, and the public’s appetite for this kind of travelogue was dwindling anyway. It took eight years for him to save enough to travel again, and he had to go overland on a shoestring, as in his earliest expeditions.
In 1840, at the age of fifty-four, Holman set off on his final adventure. His route wound through Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Hungary. Dressed in his worn naval uniform paired with a sunhat and carrying his trusty stick, he must have cut an unusual figure. However, his natural charm and humble firmness combined with “divine protection and the sympathies of mankind” stood him in good stead. Throughout his many odysseys, he was never robbed or taken advantage of.
By the time he got home in 1846, he had been forgotten by Victorian England. His book about this swansong adventure was never published. The Blind Traveller lived the rest of his days beside the docks in east London. With its drinking dens and brothels, it was an insalubrious address but no doubt stimulating for a white-bearded wanderer who needed the world to come to him in his dotage.
Holman died in 1858, just days after completing his memoir. He was buried at Highgate Cemetery. What happened to the mysterious manuscript has never been clarified. While it’s tempting to hope it’s still out there, the likelihood is that no one—blind or sighted—will ever see it.