"Some difficulties meet, full many
I find them not, nor seek for any."
~James Holman's self-penned motto
The most active world traveler in history is believed to be an Englishman named James Holman. He traveled completely alone, braving the dangers and discomforts of early 19th century journeys without even the cushion of personal wealth to ease the way. By public carriage, by horseback, by peasant carts, by foot, he boldly entered every populated part of the globe without even knowing the native languages, but he always emerged not only alive, but with a profound understanding of the lands he had seen. He was simultaneously a reckless adventurer, a cool-headed explorer, and a sensitive poet.
He was also totally blind.
Holman was born on October 15, 1786, the fourth of six sons of John Holman, a successful Exeter apothecary. Holman the elder had ambitions for all his children, spending a great deal of money to have them well educated and placed in professions that would advance their social status. James was destined for a naval career. This delighted the boy. In later years, James wrote, "I have been conscious from my earliest youth of the existence of this desire to explore distant regions...to investigate with unwearied solicitude the moral and physical distinctions that separate and diversify the various nations of the earth." What better way to achieve this goal than by becoming a naval officer? Three weeks after he turned twelve, James was formally enlisted as a Volunteer First Class in the British Navy. As he was not only an adventurous and brave boy, but intelligent and determined, he seemed destined for a successful future following his life's dream. "I was determined not to rest satisfied until I had completed the circumnavigation of the globe."
However, destiny has a way of pulling tricks on us, and it had a particularly cruel one in store for James Holman. Holman was stationed in frigid North American waters, traveling between Nova Scotia and New England. The harsh conditions of early 19th century life at sea, where sailors were mercilessly exposed to the worst extremes of cold, heat, wet and wind, often took its toll on their health, and before he had been at sea for six years, it became clear that Holman--who by this time had reached the rank of Lieutenant--was particularly vulnerable. He developed a serious case of rheumatism, which left his body so crippled by the agony--described as "exquisite pains" and "lying pains, which are increased by the least motion"--that for days at a time he was unable to move. None of the standard remedies of the time helped for very long. By 1807, naval physicians had proclaimed him "Unserviceable," and he was quickly bundled back to England. After a brief convalescence, Holman obtained a post on another ship, but before long, he again fell too ill to remain on duty. Desperate to regain his health, Holman went to Bath, the spa city that was a Mecca for Europe's invalids. His swollen, aching joints responded well to the mineral waters, and he began happily looking forward to resuming his aborted career.
Then, for the first time, his eyes began to pain him. The puzzled doctors could not tell him why. There was no visible injury or infection to be seen. This strange new affliction intensified with frightening speed. Within days, he was reduced to lying in a darkened room, his face covered with compresses. Nothing helped the increasing pain and pressure behind his eyes. Within a few weeks, he was suddenly, mysteriously blind. Although every eye treatment known to the medical science of the day was applied, nothing worked in the slightest. (Modern medical opinion believes Holman suffered from an eye inflammation called uveitis which caused optic nerve death. Uveitis is still a leading cause of blindness.)
Holman was only twenty-five years old, and it looked like his life was over. In his time, those who were sightless generally faced a grim future--begging or living as a charity case at best, destitution and death at worst. Holman was determined to avoid either fate. He vowed to find "some pursuit adapted to my new state of existence, a congenial field of employment and consolation." In short, he would carry on with his life. Holman's sense of hearing became unusually acute, and he soon learned to depend on sound not only to deal with people, but to negotiate the landscape around him. He could no longer see the world, but few people could match his ability to hear it. As he walked through a town, what to sighted people would be a mere blur of noise was to him an intricate soundscape providing a vast panorama of information.
Holman's next move was to relearn to write. He obtained a recently invented device called "the Noctograph," intended to enable sighted people to write in the dark. It was a wooden clipboard with wires stretched across horizontally. Sheets of special carbon paper were clipped under the wires. A stylus was used to press down on the papers, using the wires as guides to keep the lines of writing straight. The pressure pressed the "carbonated papers" on normal papers underneath, resulting in faint but perfectly legible marks. Being able to write by himself, without the usual blind person's reliance on scribes, gave Holman an added sense of independence.
|Holman with his "Noctograph"|
Holman made a successful application to the only job open to a blind former naval officer: The Naval Knights of Windsor. This knightly order was limited to "Seven gentlemen, who are to be superannuated or disabled Lieutenants of English men of war...single men without children, inclined to lead a virtuous, studious and devout life." These men were given a small salary and rooms at Windsor Castle for life, with their only duties being to attend service in the castle's chapel. It was a dull life, to be sure, but it enabled Holman to earn his own living, and the simple routines of the day gave him the opportunity to continue adjusting to life as a blind man.
Holman adjusted so well that what at first seemed a haven of safety and security soon began to feel like a prison. His blindness did not quench his naturally active and adventurous spirit. As he became more confident in navigating his surroundings, the thought that the rest of his life would be spent doing nothing but pacing between his apartment and the chapel filled him with a mounting dread amounting almost to panic. He badly needed something to do.
So Holman decided to become a doctor.
In the fall of 1813, Holman approached the governor's board of the Naval Knights with an unusual request: that he be granted leave to study at the University of Edinburgh. He pointed out that the University's classes were crammed into a single six-month session, which would leave him half the year to continue his Windsor duties. The bemused governors saw no good reason to refuse, so long as Holman paid his own way. On October 15--his twenty-seventh birthday--Holman set out for Edinburgh.
His plan to obtain higher education was not quite as daft as it sounded. The University had no entrance requirements, and most classes were conducted solely as lectures, meaning that students did not have to bother with written texts. It was a curriculum that relied on rote memorization, and Holman, most fortunately, had an excellent memory, a skill his blindness had only intensified. "Whatever I retain," he boasted with only slight exaggeration, "I retain permanently." After taking a number of courses on literature--a subject at which he excelled--Holman focused on studying medicine, suggesting that he had yet to give up on finding a cure--or at least learning the cause--of his blindness. He spent three years at his studies, becoming as conversant in "the practice of physic" as any physician of his day.
In 1818, Holman suffered another serious illness, which necessitated him leaving the University. Its cause is unclear. Holman himself merely attributed it to "the cultivation of those pursuits which were pressed upon me by the tasks I had prescribed to myself." The rigors of his self-imposed studies had left him mentally and physically exhausted.
His health did not improve after his return to Windsor. His doctors prescribed that popular remedy for obscure ailments: travel. It was arranged that Holman's brother Robert (who had also become a naval lieutenant) would obtain a formal leave of absence and escort James to France.
However, the planned day of departure dawned, and Robert still had not obtained his leave. James was raring to go, and he refused to be delayed for a moment. He made a decision that would shape the rest of his life: one way or another, he was going to France. Alone.
On October 15, 1819--another fateful birthday--Holman boarded a packet ship bound for Calais. He later wrote of this first solo adventure, "Behold me, then, in France! surrounded by a people, to me, strange, invisible, and incomprehensible; separated from every living being who could be supposed to take the least interest in my welfare, or even existence." He was a blind man, with little money, wandering in an unfamiliar land. He knew no one in France, and he could not even speak the language. He was entirely alone, unprotected, utterly dependent on his luck and his wits. Even a sighted person would find the prospect daunting.
Holman loved it. In Roberts' words, "Solitary travel...was the collision of chaos and momentum, a constant, welcome assault on his senses and attention. It distracted him from his pain, and sparked new energies within." The "distraction" of travel became a physical and mental addiction. For the rest of Holman's life, whenever he had to stay inactive for long, he would come down with illnesses which were probably at least partly psychosomatic.
From Calais, Holman made his way to Paris in a two-wheeled cabriolet. It was a jolting, uncomfortable thirty-five hour trip, with only two stops along the way. As he continued to make his way across France, he followed a medical regimen of his own devising: lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and plenty of exercise. He obtained the latter by periodically jumping out of the carriages, tying a length of cord to the vehicle, and, grasping the other end, following the carriage on foot, like a dog being taken for a walk. (It was a spectacle, Holman recalled, that gave "no small amusement" to onlookers.)
When Holman faced the end of his one-year leave of absence, he was in much better health, and in excellent spirits. The thought of giving up his freedom--a freedom seasoned with just enough risk to be intoxicating--for a return to the cloistered boredom of Windsor was unsupportable. He obtained an extension of his leave from the Admiralty, and set off for Italy.
He settled in Saint Rosalie, a vineyard estate just outside of Nice. Holman helped the locals pick grapes at harvest time and thoroughly joined in all the other rustic pastimes of what he called "this semblance of an earthly paradise." He was far from lonely. Holman's intelligence, charm, good looks, and easy geniality won him immediate friends everywhere he went, with his blindness giving him a certain exotic appeal--particularly among women. Throughout his travels, Holman had a number of platonic romances--his writings often read like a G-rated edition of Casanova's memoirs--but as far as is known, he never considered marriage. Roberts assumes Holman remained a bachelor because of his twin handicaps of blindness and poverty, but it was likely more than that. Holman enjoyed the society of women, and on occasion he wistfully envied the marital happiness of others, but someone as restless and independent as he was probably had no strong need for a permanent life partner. Even his many friendships had a "ships that pass in the night" quality that was undoubtedly deliberate on his part.
Holman sailed to Genoa, utterly indifferent to the fact that, with Naples at war with Austria, and Milan and Piedmont heading for revolution, Italy had become a very dangerous place to travel. He then proceeded to Rome, the most relatively calm area in the region. There, he made the acquaintance of a Scotsman named Dr. James Clark. The doctor obtained Holman lodgings most recently occupied by a patient of Clark's who had recently died--a young poet named John Keats. Holman soon moved on to Naples. He was anxious to climb Mount Vesuvius. He spent the rest of his wanderings across Europe in the company of an old friend he had encountered in Naples, a gentleman Holman only identified as "Mr. C-l-b-k." (In his writings, Holman followed that maddening--from a historian's point of view--19th century fondness for discreet initials.) "C-l-b-k" was completely deaf, giving their travels together a quality that Holman admitted was "somewhat droll."
The friends parted company in Amsterdam: "C-l-b-k" wished to go to Germany, while Holman felt obligated to return to England. He had been abroad two years, and the governors of the Naval Knights were losing patience with his long absence.
Back at Windsor, Holman's memories of his many travels seemed more real and important to him than the dull grind of the Knights. He hired scribes, and compiled a written record of his adventures. The resulting manuscript, given the self-explanatory title of "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" found a publisher. The book was a solid critical and popular success, with the author's blindness (which the book only mentioned in passing,) making it a genuine curiosity. By the time the book was released, Holman was no longer in England. He had set out to fulfill his boyhood dream.
He was going to, in his words, make "a circuit of the world."
Holman decided his best hope of reaching this unlikely, if not insane, aim was to start by traveling though Russia. If he could make it across that vast country, he would be nearly one-third of the way to his goal. He would keep expenses down by essentially living like a Russian peasant: traveling in their primitive carts and sledges, sleeping in the simplest hostels and eating the cheapest foods. He would save more money by dispensing with guides and translators. At the eastern end of the country, Holman would hitch a ride on a whaling ship to the Sandwich Islands. From there, he expected to have little trouble finding passage on a ship to take him around Cape Horn. He would make his way to South America and Africa, and finally return to Europe via the Mediterranean. He kept the true extent of his plans to himself, telling others that he was merely taking a casual tourist jaunt to Saint Petersburg, where his old friend "C-l-b-k," was now living. His reticence was due to what he knew would be "the opposition my kind friends have always been inclined to make against what, under my peculiar deprivation, they are disposed to regard as Quixotic feelings."
In other words, he knew everyone would think he was nuts.
Holman's "Quixotic" venture started on July 19, 1822, when he boarded a merchant vessel bound for the Russian harbor of Cronstadt. He did not bother obtaining formal leave. After all, he blithely told everyone, he would not be gone long.
In Saint Petersburg, "C-l-b-k" introduced Holman to the large British expatriate community. He spent a pleasant winter there, continuing his charade of claiming he intended to go no further than Moscow, while he worked at acclimating himself to Russia's subzero temperatures. At the beginning of spring, he set off for the White City. As had been the case in Saint Petersburg, he was instantly welcomed by local high society. A personable British officer who knew the latest news from the continent was considered a prize. His next intended stop was Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia that was known as the world's most isolated city. From there, he was told, he could obtain a license to travel anywhere he pleased. He bought a wagon and horses, hired a native Tartar to drive the vehicle, carefully packed his bags (he memorized where he placed all his belongings, so he could find them by touch,) and headed for Siberia. He faced open wilderness, bitter cold, vicious insect swarms, and rough or non-existent roads in one of the most inhospitable areas on earth. It was a situation, Holman exulted, "of extreme novelty."
In Irkutsk, he encountered an unexpected problem. After he had been unwise enough to confide the true scope of his plans to the Governor General, this worthy informed him that he could not leave Siberia without the express written consent of the Tsar himself. Instead of this consent, the Tsar sent an aide, to act as Holman's "personal escort." Whether Holman liked it or not. Holman soon realized that he was no longer a tourist, but a prisoner. Back in Moscow, he was put under a virtual house arrest, and forbidden to have visitors. The authorities did not bother to tell him why. After a few interviews with police officials, Holman was bundled into a carriage and driven into Poland. (Although the reason for his expulsion remained a mystery to Holman, it appears that the Russian authorities suspected him of being a spy. The Tsar was very anxious to hide from the outside world any awareness of Russia's growing presence in North America, and Holman's seemingly inexplicable desire to explore that part of the world had roused the most dire suspicions in Russian high circles.)
Holman did not have a pleasant time in Poland. Everyone there assumed than anyone kicked out of Russia by the Tsar himself had to be some sort of dangerous desperado. After some difficulty, he was finally allowed to go to Austria, where he met a similarly chilly welcome. With something of an international cloud over his head, Holman was happy to return to England in the spring of 1824. He dictated a second book, with another spoiler-alert title: "Travels Through Russia, Siberia, Poland, Austria, Saxony, Prussia, Hanover, &c &c." He was given the honor of permission to dedicate the work to King George IV. The book, full of colorful and informative detail, was another great success, turning Holman into a literary celebrity. Holman was voted into the Linnean Society, and received an even greater honor when he was inducted into the Royal Society of London. Unfortunately, the Naval Knights were not nearly as impressed with Holman's exploits. The governors sternly informed him that there would be no more leaves of absence.
That did not trouble Holman. He was already hearing the call of the open road, and making secret plans to steal away. He had made the acquaintance of noted maritime surveyor Captain William Fitzwilliam Owen, who had just received a commission to start a British settlement in Fernando Po, an island in the Gulf of Guinea. This settlement would be the headquarters for Britain's fight against the slave trade. Owen was to capture slave ships and free their human cargo. As an ardent abolitionist, Owen was eager to take on this difficult and dangerous job. Among the crew Owen brought on his mission was Lieutenant James Holman, who fully shared Owen's antipathy to the "inhuman traffic" of slavery. Holman had managed to convince the Knights that the journey was necessary for his health. He failed to mention that he was going to an area of the world so malaria-ridden it was known as "the White Man's Grave."
Owen's expedition was ultimately disastrous. Although the native Fernandians were largely friendly enough, the dreaded malaria soon justified the region's macabre nickname, and many of the crew (including Holman) fell ill. Many died. The small community was beginning to run out of food. On top of that, Owen soon learned that it was extremely difficult to capture slave ships. The slavers were faster than Royal Navy ships, and they had the support of the regional leaders. Owen kept to his increasingly futile task until 1829, when he finally threw up his hands, turned Fernando Po over to a civil governor, and returned to England. Of the 135 men in his original crew, only 12 survived.
After about a year on Fernando Po, Holman moved on. He hitched a ride with a passing Dutch ship bound for Brazil. From Rio, Holman fell in with a mule train, and explored the Brazilian wilderness. He then obtained a berth on a Royal Navy ship that would take him as far as the Cape of Good Hope. Thereafter, Roberts tells us, ships of the Royal Navy accorded Holman a special status: "welcomed aboard, and, at the very least, allowed the standard courtesies of an officer in transit back to England...His presence onboard was wonderful for morale. He was not only profoundly pleasant company--a gracious guest and gifted listener--but a nearly inexhaustible source of entertainment. In addition to his own adventures, which he recounted with a storyteller's flair, his eidetic memory allowed him to unspool a vast stock of poetry, prose, and even jokes...Any pity directed toward him usually evaporated by the first week." To further cement his air of "belonging" on ship, Holman liked to initiate each new voyage by indulging in a sport sailors called "skylarking." He would climb to the top of the ship's mainmast--which in the open sea bucked like a mechanical horse--and wave triumphantly down to the crew. It was a stunt dangerous and foolhardy enough for anyone who could see. To see a sightless man carry it off must have been jaw-dropping. In time, people around Holman nearly forgot that he was blind.
When Holman landed in South Africa, he taught himself to ride a horse. He used his newfound talent to explore the open range. When possible, he always preferred wilderness to cities. He then sailed to Mauritius. After being warned there about the great unrest and anti-Western feelings in nearby Madagascar...Holman immediately departed for Madagascar. Next was Zanzibar, then the Seychelles Islands, then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka,) then India. In Calcutta, he found passage to China, where he amused himself by studying Cantonese, a subtle, inflected language which fascinated him. Around this time, he wrote an autobiographical poem:
The beauties of the beautiful
Are veiled before the blind,
Not so the graces and the bloom
That blossom in the mind.
The beauties of the finest form
Are sentenced to decay;
Not so the beauties of the mind,
They never fade away."
By this point, Holman was the internationally renowned "Blind Traveler." Like a modern-day celebrity, he was often asked for his autograph, or for some personal memento. When he reached New South Wales, the local press announced his arrival and reported on his movements like he was visiting royalty. In Sydney, they were amazed by his ability to ride horseback "as if possessed with every facility." He joined an exploring party in the Australian wilderness. Holman developed great respect for the Aborigines, and deplored the demeaning way in which they were treated by the white population.
Back in Sydney, he reluctantly knew it was time to return home. He had been wandering for five years, and he was well aware that he was pushing his luck with the Naval Knights--and the much-needed stipend they provided. At some point on his voyage home, Holman finally completed his "circuit of the world."
|Holman in 1830|
When he returned to London in August 1832, he was greeted by a formal censure from the Naval Knights. Not unreasonably, they felt they were scarcely getting their money's worth out of James Holman. Holman shrugged it off and prepared another book: "A Voyage Round the World, Including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, etc., etc." It was a remarkably wide-ranging work, with digressions on the Fernandian language, a recipe for soy sauce, kangaroo hunts, Aboriginal mourning rituals, and instructions in plastering walls, Indian style. His section discussing the flora and fauna of the Indian Ocean would be used as reference material by Charles Darwin in "The Voyage of the Beagle." Unfortunately, the book was not nearly as successful as Holman's previous works, and the critics were equally dismissive.
Holman was still restless. His many travels seemed to feed his wanderlust, rather than quench it. He could no longer be at ease unless he was on the move. By 1836, he had convinced two doctors to write a petition asking that he be granted medical leave from his duties as a Knight. After some nagging, he managed to wangle a four-month leave. He visited Ireland, came back after precisely four months, and moped.
He obtained a lucky break when Victoria became queen in 1837. She chose as her royal physician Holman's old friend James Clark. Clark took up Holman's cause, and persuaded the queen to write the Naval Knights commanding that Holman be allowed to travel. However, the governors took umbrage at this bit of royal butting-in. They believed that the rules of their autonomous fraternal order were, in short, none of Victoria's business. The issue of Holman's freedom to travel became a genuine policy crisis over the scope of the royal prerogative. Not wanting to get into a legal battle they might well lose, the Crown gave in.
It was Holman himself who devised an ingenious solution to the dilemma. He wrote to the queen, suggesting that instead of giving Holman immunity from the Knight's dictates, she could have the dictates themselves modified. His proposal was that the order's charter be revised to state that any Knight whose infirmities prevented him from carrying out his duties might have dispensation direct from the Crown. As the Naval Knights was legally a creation of the Crown, it gave Victoria the right to amend the rules. Holman brought his case to the High Court of Justice, which--after eight years--ruled in his favor. And Holman was on the road again.
Holman traveled to Malta, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Beirut, Egypt. Then it was on to the Holy Land. He crossed the desert into Damascus. He toured the Adriatic Sea, and ventured into Montenegro. Contemporaries reported seeing him climbing Mount Sinai, examining Venice's Saint Mark's Cathedral by touch. A young American named Francis Parkman encountered Holman in Sicily. He admired the Englishman's "indomitable energy" and "noble appearance." Parkman, who went on to be one of the 19th century's most renowned historians, himself eventually lost his sight. His fear and sorrow about his affliction was greatly eased by his vivid memories of the indomitable Blind Traveler.
On and on Holman went. Bucharest, Transylvania, Hungary, a return to Austria and France. Then, after an absence of six years, the English Channel and home. It has been estimated that by this point in his life, he had traveled a quarter of a million miles--a path equivalent to walking to the moon. Holman returned to Windsor not out of desire, but from destitution. His book royalties were all spent, and he desperately needed to earn more money. Holman became a regular visitor to the Royal Society, where he was respected and beloved by his peers, and he plotted another book.
|Holman in 1849|
When Holman made the rounds of publishers, he found that he was, in brief, passe. Victorians thought of the blind as pitiful, helpless creatures, incapable of living anything like normal lives. The idea of reading a travel book written by a blind man seemed absurd to the extreme. Worse still, doubts--planted largely by jealous rival explorers--had been planted about his veracity. Many people simply refused to believe it was possible that a blind man could have accomplished what he did, and then accurately record his experiences. Holman now had, in Roberts' words, "an aura of anachronism." However unfairly, Holman had always been regarded as a novelty, and novelties rarely have a long shelf life. Undeterred, Holman continue to work not only on a manuscript of his most recent travels, but on his autobiography.
In 1852, Holman visited Norway and Sweden. It would be his final major round of travels, although he continued to make day trips across the Channel. Most of his energies centered around compiling his memoirs, which he planned to call "Holman's Narratives of His Travels." He saw this manuscript as not only his most important work, but his most personal one. It would, he felt, be his great enduring legacy, proving to the world that he was neither a helpless cripple or a novelty act.
By 1857, Holman's long-shaky health began to deteriorate. Like Ulysses S. Grant a few decades later, he began to see the completion of his memoirs as a race against Death. Also like Grant, he won the contest. In late July 1857, Holman finished his work. Less than one week later, on the 28th, Holman passed away. He probably thought of it as the ultimate solo journey.
Holman was given a quiet burial in London's Highgate Cemetery, and he was quickly forgotten by the public. His manuscripts, including the autobiography, were entrusted to his literary executor, Robert Bell. Bell shopped the manuscript to publishers, without finding any takers. After several years, he gave up trying.
The fate of this manuscript which had meant so much to Holman remains a mystery. After Bell's death, it was not found among his papers. The supposition is that Holman's memoirs were either accidentally or deliberately destroyed, although with any luck, the manuscript may yet turn up in a forgotten corner somewhere. It is a curious thing how history's most accomplished traveler left so few footprints behind him.
Roberts' book naturally centers around the unusual and compelling figure of James Holman, but it is also a vivid glance at the many interesting characters Holman encountered during his astonishingly peripatetic life. There is his deaf friend, the enigmatic "C-l-b-k," (who seems to have been some sort of International Man of Mystery.) There is a boyhood tutor of Holman's, a con man who went on to be the founder of Australia's public school system. There is the blind scientist who was the first to unlock the mystery of bees. On every page, one encounters explorers, eccentrics, world leaders, visionaries, heroes, cranks, and simply "ordinary" people who happened to cross paths with one very extraordinary man.
"A Sense of the World" moved me more than any book I have read in a very long time, and James Holman is someone I shall never forget. Whenever I start moaning and complaining about the difficulties and roadblocks fate throws me, I will think of Holman and what he managed to make of his life. And I will feel very ashamed of myself.