James Holman, The Blind Traveler

Apr 13, 2023 0 comments

James Holman was a remarkable figure in the history of travel and exploration. Born in Exeter, England, in 1786, Holman lost his sight in his early twenties due to an unknown illness. Despite this setback, Holman went on to embark on a journey around the world that was both ambitious and unprecedented.

James Holman was the son of an apothecary. As a young boy, he developed a fascination with the sea and dreamed of becoming a sailor. At the age of 12, he joined the Royal Navy as first-class volunteer. Holman's career in the Navy was promising, and he quickly rose through the ranks. However, his life took a dramatic turn when he fell ill with what was believed to be rheumatism. The illness left him blind and in chronic pain, and he was forced to retire from the Navy at the age of 25.

In recognition of the fact that his condition was duty-related, the Navy gave Holman a pension and a lifetime of accommodation at the Windsor Castle along with other retirees and veterans. Life at the Castle was peaceful, but the quietness of such a life harmonized so poorly with his active habits and keen interests that it made him physically ill. A doctor suggested that a warmer climate might do his health good, and Holman decided to visit the Mediterranean. Following the doctor’s advice, he left for France. The trip would forever change him.

Holman became determined to leave the life of sedentary and continue exploring the world. In 1819, Holman set out on what would become an epic journey around the world. He traveled to France, Italy, and Switzerland before crossing the Mediterranean to North Africa.

Holman's next stop was the Far East, where he visited China, Japan, and other countries. He made a journey to Siberia, where he was accused of spying, imprisoned and exiled as an enemy of the Tsar. The Russians believed that it was impossible for a blind person to be travelling and so he must have been faking his illness. In Africa he participated in fighting the slave trade, helping to found what is now the nation of Equatorial Guinea. On Fernando Po Island, now part of Equatorial Guinea, the Holman River was named in his honor.

Holman's journey around the world was remarkable not only because of his disability but also because of the sheer scope of his wanderings. He covered vast distances and visited many different countries, making his journey one of the most ambitious and impressive travelogues of the 19th century. Holman navigated using his other senses, and he became proficient at using a walking stick to help him move around listening to the thuds and clinks of his walking stick ricochet off his surroundings. Holman would also physically touch practically anything to gain a better understanding of his surroundings. He would glide his hands over brick walls, sculptures, and, on occasion, people.

Holman's literary contributions were significant, especially considering the challenges he faced as a blind traveler. He wrote several books about his travels, including "A Voyage Round the World," which was published in 1834. This book chronicled his journey across four continents and was widely read at the time. He also published The Narrative of a Journey through France, etc. in 1822, Travels through Russia, Siberia, etc. in 1825, and Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, etc., in several volumes from 1827 to 1832.

Holman made his last journeys through Spain, Portugal, Moldavia, Montenegro, Syria and Turkey. After returning from the trip, Holman finished the manuscript of his next book, Holman's Narratives of His Travels. Unfortunately, Holman died within a week and this manuscript was never published and is presumed lost.


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