James Holman (1786–1857), known as “the Blind Traveller,” was a 19th-century adventurer and author who was the first blind person to circumnavigate the earth. An Englishman born with perfect eyesight and robust health, Holman served in the Royal Navy until he was disabled by an illness that eventually claimed his sight. Persevering against ill health and social convention, he studied medicine and traveled the world solo, publishing a number of travelogues before slipping into obscurity in later years.
James Holman was born in Exeter, England, the fourth son of an apothecary (pharmacist), on October 15, 1786. An energetic lad, he joined the Royal Navy at age ten and by 20 he was a lieutenant, although a bout with a debilitating illness crippled and blinded him within a few years. Although Holman was granted a disability pension and living quarters, he learned to get around on his own, tapping with a metal-tipped cane. Mastering this, he applied for leave to study medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, and from there embarked on a European tour, observing and interacting with situations and people and recording his experiences in extensive notes. Upon his return to London, Holman published a book about his travels that discussed his adaptation to blindness. The book was wildly successful and he became known as “The Blind Traveller.” Although he funded a series of increasingly ambitious journeys around the world, the reading public eventually tired of his exploits and his later books sold poorly, leading Holman to spend the final years of his life in poverty.
Joining the Royal Navy at age ten was a bold move and an early indicator of Holman's fearless approach to life. His family had assumed that he would be a clergyman, as the fourth son could expect no inheritance, and he was under little pressure to marry “well” and thus increase the family fortunes. According to British law at the time, firstborn sons inherited everything, with second and third sons expected to work for advancement. Holman was sent to school for basic education, and he was quick to make his escape when opportunity presented itself in the form of King George IV's Royal Navy.
When Holman was ten years old, his schoolmaster was forced to flee the country in disgrace, having been charged with immorality on the basis of new laws against pornography, prostitution, and the like. At the same time, British Army General John Graves Simcoe had returned home to Exeter, on leave from a posting to Canada. Boys could join the British armed services if they gained the patronage of an officer, and Simcoe was well connected among such people, having served as a lieutenant-colonel during the colonial wars. Holman wasted no time in presenting himself at Simcoe's door in search of such a position.
Holman's timing could not have been better. Due to Britain's ongoing war with France, there was a pressing need for crews for His Majesty's navy. Moreover, a new fast-track position had been created for willing boys such as Holman: that of Volunteer First Class. Simcoe must have been impressed: he found the ten-year-old Holman a fortunate assignment to a high-ranking admiral's ship, thus starting him on his naval career.
Admiral Lord Bridport, Holman's first commander and patron, was fourth in command of the British Royal Navy, with duties in London. His well-appointed ship thus stayed in port for most of the next two years. Longing for experience at sea, Holman boldly asked the admiral to be assigned to a different ship. This demonstrated the self-confidence of the adventure-seeking preteen; admirals were the gods of navy life and existed at the very top of a strict chain of command and deference. Bridport refused at first, but Holman persisted, and his third request was granted.
Now age 12, Holman was assigned to HMS Cambrian, which spent the next three years hunting privateers, ships hired by enemy governments to attack and pillage Royal Navy vessels, essentially as legal pirates. After this tour was complete, the Cambrian was assigned to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a port on the cold, stormy northern coast of eastern Canada.
The northern latitudes did not agree with Holman at all. He had risen through the ranks and was in line to be made a lieutenant. Over a few years, however, his joints had begun to hurt and his duties became a struggle. Doctors could not diagnose his condition but called it “traveller's gout” due to the pain in his joints. (Gout is a disease of the elderly, in which uric acid crystalizes in joints of the foot, causing inflammation and pain.) Holman's symptoms were unusually severe; although they came and went as he was sent for various treatments, they trended worse. In 1810, then age 24, Lieutenant Holman had to leave the service on disability.
Holman traveled to the English spa city Bath in hopes of a cure. The opposite happened; while there, not only did his crippling pain continue, his eyesight began to fail. Doctors were baffled; within weeks he had lost his sight completely. This was a catastrophe, but Holman rallied. In Georgian England, blind people were objects of pity and quickly became impoverished, many resorting to begging on the street, eyes covered with a blindfold. Holman had no such intentions. He bought a metal-tipped cane and began exploring the streets of Bath, albeit at a hobble. He wore his naval uniform, stood proudly upright, and left his eyes uncovered. He learned to focus intently on the environment with his remaining senses, developing the ability to echo-locate (recognize reflected sound) with his cane.
Back in London, a new charity program was being offered by the Navy. Holman applied and was accepted as a Naval Knight, one of a few disabled naval veterans given room, board, and a small pension at Windsor Castle, on the promise that they would attend church twice a day to pray for their king. Holman gratefully accepted, but after moving in, he found the situation far too sedate. He studied the rules, saw an opportunity, and again applied for the right to attend college and study medicine.
Granted permission to attend the University of Edinburgh, Holman relocated and became an ardent student. He attended lectures multiple times in order to memorize the information, and had classmates read textbooks aloud for him. He did very well for a grade-school dropout who was a decade older than his classmates. After a time, however, he fell ill once again. His Scottish doctor recommended that he convalesce in a warmer climate, such as the Mediterranean. This advice inspired him to make the first of many appeals to his benefactors to grant him medical leave to travel abroad.
Soon Holman was off for his first trip to France. It was far from luxurious: he crossed the English Channel on an antiquated ferry, landing in France with the uniform on his back and precious few personal belongings. Travel accomodations on the continent consisted mainly of overloaded coaches traveling muddy and pothole-filled roads. Still, Holman was ecstatic. Surrounded by strangers whose language he could not understand, bouncing down terrible roads, he felt liberated. He also felt better physically. On slow stretches, he would climb out of the coach, tie a piece of string to the back, and jog along in its wake.
Holman spent a year crossing France in this fashion, after which he was supposed to return to London and his duties as a Naval Knight. But he could not. Instead, he headed off through Italy, where, among other adventures, he scaled Mount Vesuvius, the first blind person to do so. In Naples he met up with an old friend from the Royal Navy, who had since gone deaf. They decided to travel together through northern Europe, the only time James Holman traveled with a companion.
Holman returned to London in 1821, more than two years after receiving permission for a one-year trip. He spent the next six months dictating the account of his travels for publication and planning his next adventure: a trip around the world.
By the time his book—descriptively titled 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—was published, Holman was long gone. His plan to circumnavigate the globe, which none but a few sailors had done up until that point, was a tightly budgeted affair. He planned to travel overland by public transport, eating local food and living as cheaply as possible. He hoped to cross Russia via Siberia and catch a whaling ship across the Pacific.
It was a crazy idea. So warned the Russian people he met in St. Petersburg, upon Holman's arrival a year later. When he shared his plan to cross Siberia, they were horrified. Siberia was a place where criminals were sent for punishment. It was no place to visit.
The determined blind traveler insisted, however. Holman purchased a well-used wagon, hired a driver, and set off for the 3,500-mile trek, which was, as predicted, a disaster. Aside from near-starvation, terrible weather, and generally grueling conditions, he received a less-than-congratulatory welcome upon arriving, three months later, in Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia. Shortly after his arrival, Holman was accosted by the Tsar's secret police, there on orders to take the suspected spy back the way he'd come.
They bundled a very dismayed Holman onto a sledge and packed him, at top speed, all the way back to the border of Poland. There were no stops, no delays. He was dumped at the border. Holman stumbled, shocked and bewildered, back across Europe and returned to London in 1824, two years and a day after leaving. On the positive side, he arrived to find that his book was a bestseller, and that he had money in the bank. He was now famous, celebrated as the Blind Traveller.
Although this trip was successful, it had its challenges, included surviving a malaria epidemic on his first stop, being thrown from a horse (he learned to ride in South Africa), and being swarmed by bees. Then there were his chronic, recurring pains. Characteristically, Holman, on the whole, was a happy traveler, wont to climb the rigging on ships to wave and shout, in case the crew were worried about his fitness for travel. He grew a long beard, still wore his now-quite-worn Royal Navy uniform, and navigated the world with his charm, wits, and a trusty cane. He realized his dream of circumnavigating the globe in fine shape, reporting in his third book that, when traveling, he relied on “divine protection and the sympathies of mankind.”
Holman's star had begun to wane as an author, however. While he was away on this third excursion, a critical review had been published of his Siberian adventure, claiming that his blindness disqualified him from claiming to observe anything. And how could he claim any place was wild or inaccessible, when a blind man had been there? At any rate, the public appetite for such accounts was waning in general, and critical reviews by fellow travelers did not help Holman. His third book sold poorly and he was now ignored or patronized by many of his former fans.
Critical reaction did not deter Holman from planning his next journey, undertaken eight years later, at age 54. He criss-crossed southern Europe, the Middle East, and the Holy Land, returning six years later. He wrote his fourth book, but no publisher was willing to print it. He had been largely forgotten.
Holman spent the last decade of his life living in poverty in a room near the London docks. Despite the poor living conditions, he no doubt enjoyed the comings and goings of sea folk, and spent his days writing his autobiography, which he finished a week before his death in 1857, at age 70. His final work found no publisher and was lost in later years.
Holman, James, 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, Smith, Elder & Co., 1834.
Holman, James, Voyage round the World, Volume I: Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, etc. etc., Smith, Elder & Co.,1835.
O'Byrne, William R., A Naval Biographical Dictionary: Comprising the Life and Services of Every Living Officer in Her Majesty's Navy, from the Rank of Admiral of the Fleet to That of Lieutenant, Inclusive, John Murray, 1849.
Roberts, Jason, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became the World's Greatest Traveller, Harper Collins, 2006.
Great British Nutters blog, http://greatbritishnutters.blogspot.com/ (April 7, 2008), Simon Bendle, “James Holman: The Blind Traveller.”❑