The blind traveller
James Holman, who was hailed as one of the ‘greatest wonders of the world he so sagaciously explored’, very soon became a forgotten hero, writes Giridhar Khasnis.
This year marks the 155th anniversary of the death of British adventurer and writer James Holman (1786-1857) who 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.
Born in 1786, 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.
In his celebrated debut non-fiction work, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveller (HarperCollins/2006), 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’.”
Holman himself is known to have asserted that the effort of travelling through blindness had been beneficial to him in every way. “I know not what might have been the consequence, if the excitement with which I looked forward to it had been disappointed, or how much my health might have suffered but for its refreshing influence.”
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? Even Humboldt himself was not exempt from this necessity…to those who inquire what pleasures I can derive from the invigorating spirit of travelling under the privation I suffer, I may be permitted to reply in the words of the poet: Unknown those powers that raise the soul to flame/Catch every nerve, and vibrate through the frame/Their level life is but a smouldering fire/Unquench’d by want, unfanned by strong desire.
Even as he tried to silence his many detractors by undertaking challenging tours, Holman was more than aware of his dire condition. “The picturesque in nature, it is true, is shut out from me, and works of art are to me mere outlines of beauty, accessible only to one sense...notwithstanding my want of vision, I do not fail to visit as many interesting points in the course of my travels; and by having things described to me on the spot, I think it is possible for me to form as correct a judgment as my own sight would enable me to do: and to confirm my accuracy, I could bring many living witnesses to bear testimony to my endless inquiries, and insatiable thirst for collecting information. Indeed, this is the secret of the delight I derive from travelling…”
Not for nothing was Holman hailed as “one of the greatest wonders of the world he so sagaciously explored.” The sad part was that he was also the butt of criticism by contemporaries who were out to shame him, condemn his achievements by raising questions on his literary accomplishments and scientific observations. As time went by, he also began receding in public memory.
“The fame diminished, and curdled into ridicule, but Holman didn’t slow down in the slightest,” writes Roberts. “Impoverished, increasingly threadbare, and still in debilitating health, he kept to his solo travels, even as his works fell out of print and his new writings went unpublished…Holman dreamed that future generations might appreciate his life’s work, but they weren’t given the chance.”
When Holman died in London, he was 70. 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.”