The Blind Traveler: How James Holman Felt His Way Around the World to Become History's Most Prolific Explorer
By Lucas Reilly
Nobody aboard could see what had happened. It was midnight, and the HMS Saunders-Hill—a merchant vessel anchored along a sleepy bend of the River Thames—shuddered violently. Crewmen clambered from their beds and grasped at tilting walls. Cries filled the briny air. In the darkness, it was difficult to make sense of what had happened.
James Holman, one of the passengers who had rushed to the deck, expected to find the Saunders-Hill wrecked to splinters. Instead he felt the boat—the whole boat—lurch from its anchorage and drift into the middle of the Thames.
The anchor chain had snapped. An errant coal ship, Holman would learn, had collided with the Saunders-Hill, sending the schooner's rigging—the cat’s cradle of ropes, cables, and chains strung from the masts—bobbing in the current.
The good news was that the heaving ship remained afloat. Holman, a former sailor in the Royal Navy, clutched a railing and inched his way toward the helm to assist the captain.
The captain was not there.
Still robed in his white nightgown, Holman grabbed the wheel and started to steer the Saunders-Hill himself. In the distance, the captain—who was attending to an emergency elsewhere—barked directions to turn port and starboard. The boat steadied, the wake settled, and Holman navigated the damaged ship to a nearby harbor for repairs.
When the skipper of the Saunders-Hill returned to the helm, his jaw dropped. He had caught glimpses of Holman's white nightgown from across the deck and assumed the person guiding the boat was his wife.
Instead, he discovered a 36-year-old blind man.
“The Blind Traveler,” as James Holman was known, had recently finished writing his first book: 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.
The windy title said it all: For nearly two years, Holman, a native of England, had journeyed across Europe alone and blind. His account became a bestseller and critical success. The British Critic praised Holman’s first book as “a specimen of how much might be done by an active and energetic spirit.”
"Energetic" is an understatement. Holman was a hurricane of audacity, goodwill, and charm. He meandered into each foreign country with no itinerary, no grasp of the language, and no prior relationships with anyone who lived there, and then proceeded to explore thoroughly. Many times he entered a village as a pitied stranger and left as an admired gentleman.
After gallivanting through Europe, Holman boarded the HMS Saunders-Hill in 1822 and aimed his sails for St. Petersburg, Russia—the first stop on his attempt to circle the globe. Holman had a loose idea of his circumnavigation route: spend winter in western Russia, traverse Siberia the following spring, pass through Mongolia, sneak into China, hop on a whaling ship set for Hawaii, and improvise onward.
The plan was ambitious, if not crazy. “In the early 1820s there was no such thing as an amateur, independent circumnavigator,” writes Holman’s biographer, Jason Roberts, in A Sense of the World. “There were people whose careers had carried them around the world—sailors, merchants, diplomats, missionaries, and a handful of naturalists—but no one had yet succeeded in doing so solely for the experience.” Travel was a practical matter, not something you did for fun.
It made even less sense to start in Russia. Foreigners of all stripes were regarded with suspicion there and risked deportation. With success uncertain, Holman concealed his trip's true purpose and fibbed to anybody who inquired about it. He was merely in Russia to visit a friend, he'd say. “I was always particularly cautious in divulging my real plans,” Holman wrote in Travels Through Russia.
The adventure didn’t start smoothly. The HMS Saunders-Hill nearly sunk in the Thames and was later briefly detained off the Russian coast by a band of inebriated customs officers who demanded brandy in exchange for a passport stamp. “I trust that these unpleasant traits of Russian character will be softened down on a more intimate acquaintance,” Holman wrote.
Impressions improved in St. Petersburg, where ambassadors and diplomats invited him to dine on fish pies, reindeer tongue, and “a peculiar kind of pancake, named waffle, which is in the form of an oblong square, made in a mould.” He embarked for Moscow the next spring, enduring a seven-week carriage-ride along a rocky, unfinished road ringed by thickets of fir trees.
In the Russian capital, Holman threw himself into the city with his customary zeal.
James Holman was a blind man who loved to go sightseeing. He visited art museums, toured cathedrals, and hiked mountains. He was an acute observer. According to Roberts, he could discern the social status of a passerby just by listening to their footsteps. (The clip-clop of upper crust footwear had a distinctly patrician timbre.) As his friend William Jerden wrote in the book Men I Have Known, “He had eyes in his mouth, eyes in his nose, eyes in his ears, and eyes in his mind, never blinking, but ready on all occasions to perform his services with remarkable precision and efficiency."
Holman would physically touch practically anything to gain a better understanding of his surroundings. He’d glide his hands over brick walls, sculptures, and, on occasion, people. “This is what the contemporary travel writer may have to do,” Anatole Broyard wrote of Holman in The New York Times. “He may have to squeeze places, until they yield something, anything.”
But Holman’s habit of literally feeling his way through Russia sometimes landed him in trouble. The security guards watching the Kremlin’s Treasury Room—home to the czar’s thrones, jewels, and crowns—fumed when Holman plopped down onto Boris Godonov’s old throne. Days later, Holman shamelessly climbed into the Tsar Cannon, a legendary 17.5-foot-long wide-barreled mortar. “I much astonished the sergeant who accompanied us, by coolly taking off my coat, and creeping to the bottom of it,” he wrote.
Holman’s antics in Moscow didn’t last long. Siberia loomed before him, and he needed every sunbeam to survive the 3500-mile journey. He hired a driver to steer a wagon, and stockpiled medicine, tea, sugar, six bottles of brandy, six bottles of French wine, some cups, bags of coinage, and one teapot.
This leg of the trip didn't start smoothly either. Soon after they left, Holman and his driver became lost and, in the heat of bickering about directions, realized they had no way to communicate. The road, potholed and planked with fallen trees, turned their springless cart into an instrument of torture. “No position within the carriage was tenable,” Holman complained, “and the shocks it gave my brain so excessive, that it felt every instant ready to burst out of its tenement.”
Thankfully, happier conditions lay ahead. In the city of Vladimer, the local citizenry chauffeured Holman to a cathedral to see a “fine painting of St. Vladimer.” In the province of Nizhny Novgorod, the Prince of Georgia invited him to a stately dinner and a guided tour of a local monastery, where the monks played a “very grave game of nine-pins.”
Burrowing deeper into Russia, greetings gave way to glares. In Kazan, a policeman tailed him. In Malmyzh, an official accosted him and insisted he stay for an “interview.” (Believing “it was impossible a blind person could be travelling in the way I appeared to travel,” officials suspected Holman of espionage.)
To be fair, it was easy to confuse Holman for a secret agent or a madman. Holman knew it. “When my intention first began to transpire at Moscow, every one made it his business to demonstrate the madness and absurdity of attempting so dangerous, uninteresting, and disagreeable a journey,” he wrote. “[T]he name of Siberia ... seemed connected in their minds only with sentiments of horror.”
For good reason. Siberia was an immense outdoor prison. Beginning in the 17th century, criminals, POWs, and political enemies were exiled to desolation and doomed to work (sometimes for the rest of their lives) in salt and silver mines. Holman passed these prisoners on his travels: chain gangs of men or women, handcuffed in pairs, solemnly marching a dusty road.
Even for a free man traveling by cart, the trip was miserable. After cresting the Ural Mountains, the team plodded through the boggy grasslands of the Baraba Steppe. The air was mosquito soup. “[T]he most noxious and disagreeable tract of country in Siberia,” Holman called it. It was there his driver got an eye infection, leaving the duo with only one functioning eye between them.
In September 1823, Holman arrived in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, where locals celebrated his arrival with dinners and dances. A friendship blossomed between Holman and the Governor General of Eastern Siberia, Aleksandr Stapnovich Lavinski, to whom Holman spilled his secret.
“I therefore presumed to communicate to him, what I had done to no other person before, an outline of the plan I had decided upon for my future proceedings, and which was no less than to complete the tour of the world,” he wrote.
Weeks later, a Russian military courier came to Irkutsk. The Emperor had sent him. He had orders to see the so-called Blind Traveler with his own eyes.
James Holman was not born blind. Raised near an apothecary in Exeter, England, Holman enjoyed a healthy childhood and enlisted with the Royal Navy at age 12. (One of the first ships he sailed, the HMS Cambrian, was supposed to hunt privateers but accidentally exchanged more gunfire with a lighthouse than it did with hostile vessels.)
For seven years, Holman bounced between ports and lived on open seas with little complaint. That is, until age 19, when the third lieutenant felt an odd throbbing in his feet.
The pain was a classic sign of rheumatism, a woefully vague seafaring sickness that Holman chose to ignore—until the agony intensified. His ankles ballooned to a size that made it impossible to slip boots on, and the ship’s doctor, at a loss for real remedies, likely prescribed the teenage sailor little more than wine and rest.
Holman’s health swung on a pendulum. He got better. Then worse. Better. Worse. On rough seas, the pitching ship was enough to make his bones scream. In Nova Scotia, a doctor who believed that blisters could alleviate the young man's symptoms likely treated him by exposing his skin to the glowing tip of a hot metal poker.
It didn't work. Desperate for a solution, Holman visited the hot springs and spas of Bath, a fashionable resort for convalescents, and dipped himself into steamy waters. Day by day, his joint pain subsided.
The cause of what happened next remains a mystery. As the pain left Holman's joints, it surged inside his eyeballs. Holman’s sight clouded. Then it vanished.
Panicked, the 25-year-old consulted doctors and quacks alike. Dozens of people held out the promise that he might regain his sight, but no solution turned up, and months of false guarantees and misplaced hope made Holman miserable. “The suspense which I suffered, during the period when my medical friends were uncertain of the issue, appeared to me a greater misery than the final knowledge of the calamity itself,” he wrote.
For the rest of Holman's life, the pangs in his bones came and went. But his sight never returned. And seven years after going blind, when Holman's joints wailed again, a doctor suggested a warmer climate might do his body good. Why not visit the Mediterranean? With little to lose, Holman gave the doctor's idea a try. On his 32nd birthday, October 15, 1819, he boarded a ship at Dover, England and sailed for France.
The trip would forever change him.
Holman's first adventure began with abandonment. After spending four drizzly days sardined in a carriage—time he spent nursing a bottle of wine and munching on cow tongue—the coach halted in Bordeaux, France. As the other passengers scurried into the downpour, nobody helped Holman out. “What could I do?” he wrote. “Had I jumped out, I should not have known what step to have taken next.”
So Holman sat in the carriage alone, waited, and listened.
Raindrops. The tumble of a nearby river. Mud-sogged footsteps. Distant conversation grew into a babble of “loud and unintelligible gibberish.” Suddenly, Holman felt a strange sensation as the carriage lulled to and fro in an “irregular kind of motion.”
Holman didn't know that his fellow passengers had boarded a ferry and left him alone in the carriage, which had been thrust onto a raft. He was being towed down the Dordogne River with their luggage. “They had, in fact, been using him for ballast,” Roberts writes.
Conditions improved once Holman asserted himself as something other than a human sandbag. In Montpellier, a noblewoman welcomed him into her mansion. In Marseilles, he skinny-dipped in the ocean. In Nice, he harvested grapes on a vineyard estate. Holman’s spirits brightened. On beautiful days, he'd jump out of the carriage he was riding in and tie a leash to it so he could walk down the road without wandering into a ditch. At first, other passengers thought he was a loon. But soon fellow travelers flocked around him as though he were a blind Pied Piper.
It wasn't the warmer climate that improved his attitude. It was the novelty of life on the road. "He was compelled to keep traveling because that was the only thing that distracted him from his pain," Jason Roberts tells Mental Floss. "He was undergoing extreme pain and transmuting that pain into experience." With no concrete destination in mind, he roamed farther.
Holman was an adept navigator. Instead of surveying sidewalks with a long sweep of a cane, he carried a metal-tipped walking stick that he repeatedly tapped on the ground. Like a dolphin, he maneuvered via echolocation and listened to the thuds and clinks of his walking stick ricochet off his surroundings.
In Rome, he climbed Trajan’s Pillar, Palatine Hill, the Tarpeian Rock, and Monte Testaccio in one day. The guide he hired failed to keep up. Holman even tried to scale the top of St. Peter’s Basilica. (Guards denied him the ascent—not because of his blindness, it should be noted, but because of his Britishness: The last time a Briton had climbed to the Holy See's summit, the Union Jack was unfurled and set aflutter.)
On one cloudless night, Holman climbed Mount Vesuvius and stood at the edge of the lower caldera, feeling the magma rumble under his boots. When somebody asked if he needed help, Holman declined by saying he could “see things better with my feet.”
The gadabout moved onward. In fact, in Naples, Holman bumped into an old friend who, to his surprise, had also suffered a sensory loss. (His unnamed buddy had gone deaf.) After catching up, the two men decided to wander Europe together and progressed 115 miles to Rome walking arm in arm.
“[I]t may be regarded as a curious incident in our traveling connexion,—that I should want sight, and he hearing,” Holman wrote. “[T]he circumstance is somewhat droll, and afforded considerable amusement to those whom we travelled with, so that we were not unfrequently exposed to a jest on the subject, which we generally participated in, and sometimes contributed to improve.”
It was like a 19th century buddy-cop adventure movie. Holman used his ears and voice to negotiate with innkeepers and carriage drivers, while his friend used his eyes to read receipts and contracts and describe the passing scenery (mountains, architecture, and women). By the time the two departed modern Italy, Holman had traveled so much that he needed a new passport, “the old one having been filled up at every point with signs and countersigns,” he said.
He continued to Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands before returning alone to Britain in 1821.
James Holman, who had left England an invalid, returned home an explorer.
Three years later, Holman’s first attempt to circle the globe was frozen in southeastern Siberia by a Feldjäger. Members of the czar’s official corps of couriers, Feldjägers were tasked with transporting messages—and, in some cases, suspicious individuals—in and out of the Motherland. They had menacing reputations. On his travels through Russia, writer Marquis de Custine said that a Feldjäger's smile was “ferocious by its very immobility.”
Feldjäger Kolovin found Holman in Irkutsk and delivered his message: You’re coming with me.
Holman was despondent, writing that “The intelligence I had received acted almost as an electric shock upon me." He begged the Governor-General to allow him to stay—the Mongolian border was within reach—but the request was denied.
“I did not conceive that they could suspect me of any motives or conduct obnoxious to their feelings,” Holman wrote with bafflement. “[Y]et it appeared singular, that I should be regarded of sufficient importance to have a lieutenant of the corps of feld-jagers sent a distance of four thousands miles to attend my movements and watch over me.”
On January 18, 1824, Holman reluctantly boarded a sled with Feldjäger Kolovin and glided west over the frozen Angara River toward Moscow. Dreams of China faded behind him as the four horses tugging the sled galloped at dangerous speeds. When one horse collapsed 50 miles into their journey, the Feldjäger left it to die on the roadside. Holman asked who would pay for the wheezing animal. The Feldjäger's response: You do.
The trip was an odyssey of near-death experiences. One day, the sled nearly careened off a cliff and, a few hours later, almost pulverized a peasant’s cart. The Feldjäger caned his driver with the steel sheath of his sword for the accidents. Yet he insisted they keep a breakneck pace. Put simply, everybody got acquainted with the taste of Siberian snow. When the group arrived in Moscow, a Kalmyk slave who had accompanied the crew removed his boots only to discover that his right big toe had fallen off. His feet were so numb from the journey, he never noticed.
In Moscow, authorities held Holman prisoner. They locked him in a hotel and forbade him from writing to friends or speaking English with visitors. The master of police assigned a spy to sit in Holman’s room and monitor his movements. After Holman was cleared, the Feldjäger dumped him off at the Russian border.
The Blind Traveler clutched his walking stick and aimed westward. He would have to try again.
The reason for Holman's deportation is unclear. Russian officials were acting cagy or condescending: Either they refused to believe that a sightless man could travel such distances—was he a spy faking blindness?—or they believed Holman was a risk to his own well-being.
Whatever the reason, it all swings to the same stereotype: Disability was supposed to mean immobility.
Mark Twain expressed a similar sentiment in The Innocents Abroad. “If you want dwarfs—I mean just a few dwarfs for a curiosity—go to Genoa ...” he wrote. “But if you would see a fair average style of assorted cripples, go to Naples, or travel through the Roman States. But if you would see the very heart and home of cripples and human monsters, both, go straight to Constantinople.”
While Twain’s choice of words may chafe modern ears, they illustrate a pernicious trope that Holman constantly faced: People with disabilities were considered a “fixed site." A blind man simply wasn't supposed to be wandering around alone. (And as literary historian Eitan Bar-Yosef writes in the Victorian Review, it's an odd attitude considering the amount of traveling people with disabilities have made throughout history. Back during the Roman Empire, it wasn’t unusual to see convalescents flocking to the steamy waters of Bath, England. Beginning in the mid-1860s, many disabled Europeans took pilgrimages to Lourdes, France, to visit the healing grotto where the Virgin Mary was believed to have visited Saint Bernadette Soubirous.)
And when Holman's travel books began to fly off the shelves, that attitude supplied the venom that fueled his critics. In fact, some argued that because Holman was blind, his accomplishments were not accomplishments at all. Their reasoning: If a blind man could travel thousands of miles alone, then anybody could. Move along, they told readers, nothing to be impressed about here.
“Who will then say that Siberia is a wild, inhospitable, or impassible country, when even the blind can traverse it with safety?” wondered John D. Cochrane, a traveler who, with tints of jealousy, had also journeyed across Russia (and would soon disappear in the jungles of South America, never to emerge). Other critics questioned why Holman bothered to travel at all, as if the joys of rambling were reserved only for those with operating optic nerves.
Holman brushed it all off. He insisted that everybody was blind, in a way: “Does every traveller see all that he describes?” he wrote. “And is not every traveller obliged to depend upon others for a great proportion of the information he collects?”
Holman was not one to romanticize his blindness, but he did believe it gave him advantages—especially as an author. Unlike most travel writers, whose descriptions largely depended on their own flighty impressions, Holman had to compensate for his lack of vision by talking to locals and other vagabonds. Like an investigative reporter or an anthropologist, Holman steeped himself in a culture and collected a wide range of views and experiences, gathering information that lone travel writers might have missed.
Holman had little choice but to pay greater attention to his surroundings. Where a sighted person might quickly charge up a mountain trail, Holman had to advance cautiously, focusing on details that sighted people might not think twice about: ankle-busting roots, the sound of dirt crumbling beneath his shoes, the rasp of pebbles sliding down a nearby precipice. To navigate, Holman had to listen to the blanket of silence unique to the loneliest mountaintops, had to deliberately smell the perfume of alpine forests. These sensations came together to paint scenes in the mind's eye. Sherlock Holmes nailed it when he said, "The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes." Holman couldn't see, but he observed them.
"We use vision as a means of simplifying the world. We look at a wall and go, 'Oh, a brick wall!'" Jason Roberts, Holman's biographer, tells Mental Floss. "But if you're blind, and you're touching those bricks, every one of those bricks announces its individuality." In this way, haptic perception—that is, our sense of touch—can be far more complicated than visual information. "Imagine a room of chairs," Roberts says. "If you're a sighted person, somebody could move them around without you ever noticing. But a blind person? They notice. They notice the individual chair."
In other words, Holman may have been robbed of his sight, but he responded by becoming a noticing machine.
“The picturesque in nature, it is true, is shut out from me,” Holman said. “[B]ut perhaps this very circumstance affords a stronger zest to curiosity, which is thus impelled to a more close and searching examination of details than would be considered necessary to a traveller who might satisfy himself by the superficial view, and rest content with the first impressions conveyed through the eye. Deprived of that organ of information, I am compelled to adopt a more rigid and less suspicious course of inquiry, and to investigate analytically, by a train of patient examination, suggestions, and deductions, which other travellers dismiss at first sight.”
Not to be dismissed himself, Holman did not wait long to begin his second bid to circumnavigate the planet.
Wood boards creaked, crockery clanged, and chests skidded from wall to wall as the HMS Eden pitched over foamy seas. It was August 1827, and Holman’s newest floating home was barreling into a squall. Destination: Africa.
Once again, Holman told friends that the trip was for a health-boost. He knew the explanation was a stretch. “That a man should visit Sierra Leone for the benefit of his health, seems to be … unreasonable,” he wrote. Malaria and dysentery were frequent visitors on such trips. He understood that death was possible.
Indeed, when the ship made a brief pit stop in Africa, the crew was greeted by a man named Mr. Lewis. The transplanted Englishman warned the sailors of insect-borne diseases and boasted that he had discovered an “infallible method of keeping off the fever, namely by the use of brandy and water and cigars.”
Within a week, Mr. Lewis was dead.
After a three-month voyage, the HMS Eden dropped anchor in a bay of black mud. They had arrived at the island of Fernando Pó—today called Bioko—22 miles off the southern coast of Cameroon. Within minutes of dropping anchor, canoes circled the ship. Natives grasping barbed spears and slings eyed the Europeans suspiciously. Peaceful relations were established only after the crew cautiously bartered iron in exchange for yams, palm-wine, fish, and monkey skins.
Holman formed a special connection with indigenous peoples. At one point, while on land, he extended his hand to a native and was led deep into the bush. When he emerged, Holman had written the first dictionary translating some of their language to English. (Some selections: “Topy” for wine, “Epehaunah” for a purse made of sheep scrotum, and “Booyah” for mouth.)
The Eden, however, didn't drop anchor at Fernando Pó for linguistics research—the vessel was here to chase slave ships. The British Empire, which had abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, regularly ordered Royal Navy ships to patrol the African coast. At the height of the mission, about one sixth of the Royal Navy's fleet was cruising west African waters.
Fernando Pó seemed an ideal place to establish camp. The volcanic island stood sentry to a large river that the ship's captain, Fitzwilliam Owen, knew was a favored route of slave traders. Holman harbored confusing feelings about slavery. On the one hand, he was an apologist who believed slavery had the potential to yield “some prospect of improvement in the moral and physical circumstances of the negro.” Yet, on the other hand, the way it was practiced disgusted him. “The sight of the poor Africans, taken from their homes by force, condemned to banishment, and exposed for sale, like herds of cattle, in the marketplace of a foreign country, is dismal and humiliating.”
Holman would join a slave-ship hunt on one mission, helping chase three slave schooners up Nigeria’s Calabar River. Later, the Eden would capture three slave ships and save more than 330 human beings.
The Eden's position at Fernando Pó came with a cost, however. As expected, malaria sent scores of men to their sick beds—and death beds. Holman almost joined them. “Although so many persons were dying around me, I still maintained my cheerful spirits,” he said, “to which circumstance I attribute the restoration of my health, which was now daily improving.” By mission’s end, more than 90 percent of the crew would die. Holman was among 12 lucky survivors.
After his stint in Africa, a flurry of adventuring followed so full and varied it's difficult to distill (Holman's own account ran to several volumes), but here are some high points.
From Africa, Holman slunk onto a Dutch vessel and sailed the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro. Pneumonia greeted him in the Americas, but again he refused to let illness stop adventure. When offered the chance to tour the gold mines of Gongo Soco in the Brazilian rainforest, Holman abandoned his bed in favor of a mule.
For weeks, a frail Holman straggled through a humid tropical fug while sitting atop a donkey (which he ministered to by pouring Cachaça—a rummy analgesic booze—down its ears and throat). He rarely dismounted. Or bathed. Larvae burrowed into his skin. His incompetent guides forgot to bring food, with the exception of a single chicken. Ever the optimist, Holman said the trip helped “quicken the stagnant blood and stimulate the nerves.”
Holman looped to Rio and backtracked to Africa—this time, South Africa. He filled his time at sea with routine: eating breakfast, drinking tea, listening to a volunteer read to him, wandering the ship, lassoing sailors into conversation, drinking tea, eating dinner, drinking tea (he was British), more reading. On fair nights he’d climb above deck, lie down, and sleep to the sound of ruffling sails.
In South Africa, Holman learned how to ride a galloping horse, which he guided by listening to the drumbeat of hooves. He plunged into the African forest, forded the Great Fish River, and met a Gaika chief who, in exchange for rum, offered visitors private time with his 12 wives. (Holman appears to have demurred.)
Later, back at sea, Holman crossed paths with a British diplomat named Dr. Robert Lyall who’d been accused of sorcery in Madagascar and was now on the run. Lyall advised Holman to avoid the country. Naturally, Holman couldn't resist doing something he was told not to do and visited Madagascar. He left unscathed.
From there, the adventurer island-hopped to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), where he joined an elephant hunt. Traditionally, hunters captured elephants by driving the animals up a hill and sending a quiver of arrows into their feet, moving in for the kill once the elephant lost balance. Holman’s crew was less sophisticated: They brought guns. (They even gave a firearm to Holman, who, despite taking part in target practice, wisely kept his finger off the trigger.) Holman described the “extremely dangerous” road as “infested” with elephants. At one point, he barely escaped a stampede.
From Ceylon, he sailed to India, past the islands of Pressurin and Junk-Ceylon, into Penang, and through the straits of Malacca where his vessel dodged pirates. In the China Sea, he skirted around islands with “uncouth names [that] would not be very agreeable to the ears of those who do not understand them.” His chest fluttered with excitement. Ever since his ouster from Russia, he had dreamed of the Far East. “My heart beat with tumultuous delight at the thought of having at length planted my foot upon the Chinese territory.”
The Chinese were not so delighted. They had strict rules regarding foreigners and confined Holman to a tiny riverbank community, a hong that housed Englishmen and other foreign “barbarians.” The local children mocked the English-speakers, hurling stones and verbal insults at the so-called “foreign devils.” Holman brushed off the hostilities by smoking opium (it gave him a headache) and going shopping. He bought a bamboo hat and had his mind blown by a … giant punch bowl. “I could not encircle it with my arms,” he wrote in amazement.
Back at sea, Holman needled the Straits of Banca, eluded Malay Pirates, and heard sailors holler "Land, Ho!" in Australia.
Sydney greeted him with fanfare. As the Sydney Morning Herald recounted: “On Sunday week Lieutenant Holman, the blind traveller, was seen on horseback with a party of gentlemen quite at ease, and riding as if possessed with every faculty; on coming to a corner of a street, the word was given to him, and he turned the animal in a sharp trot with the utmost confidence, to the no small astonishment of the spectators.”
In Australia, Holman joined a Lewis-and-Clark-like expedition to find passage to a promising but uncharted spit of land on the continent’s southeastern lip. The adventure was “much more romantic and perilous than we had any idea of when we started on our expedition,” he recalled. The crew—which included Holman, a convict, two aboriginal guides, and two free Australians—crept over crags, past the yips of wild dogs, and through swamps and marshes. When their rations ran low, they ate squirrel and opossum. At one point, their horses went missing.
Holman loved every minute.
After Australia, he spirited across the Pacific, around Cape Horn, and uneventfully voyaged homeward. In 1832, Holman, now 45, landed in Britain. He had traveled the world.
The account of his circumnavigation could not, and did not, fit into one book. It took four. Combined, the volumes of A Voyage Round the World, Including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, etc., etc., from MDCCCXXVII to MDCCCXXXII are nearly 2000 pages long. Not only the record of an extraordinary journey, the books read like Protozoan forms of modern anthropology. “If I have thrown a single ray of light, where light had not fallen before, I shall be satisfied,” Holman wrote.
It would not be his last adventure. Holman would travel the globe once more, zigzagging for 10 years across Ireland, the Mediterranean Sea, Greek islands, the Holy Land, North Africa, Syrian cities, Slavic countries, and nearly every European city he had missed on his first tour. He went out of his way to visit new places, rarely retracing his steps.
History has bestowed the title of "World's Greatest Traveler" to many people: Marco Polo, Xuanzang, Ibn Battuta, James Cook, and Rabban Bar Sauma, to name a few. But Holman beat them all. By his death at 70 in 1857, the blind man had walked, climbed, ridden, hiked, and sailed a total distance equal to traveling to the moon. In terms of mileage and the number of cultures he encountered, Holman died as the most well-traveled explorer in world history.
Yet despite enjoying fame across borders, Holman would be relegated to history's footnotes. The manuscript describing his final giant journey would go missing, and, by the 20th century, his name would be scrubbed from the canon of great explorers.
Nearly 150 years after Holman's death, the writer Jason Roberts visited his grave in London's mossy Highgate Cemetery. He discovered the site buried under a pile of wood. The cemetery staff were using the plot of the world's most prolific explorer as a storage area.
James Holman's legacy was revived in the Sausalito Public Library. In 2001, Roberts was roaming the library stacks when a book with a bold turquoise spine entitled Eccentric Travellers caught his attention. Inside he discovered a chapter on James Holman. Hungry to learn more, Roberts wandered to the biography section to read more about this sightless wanderer. But nothing was there. Turns out, Eccentric Travellers was the only detailed reference to Holman's life written during the 20th century.
A literary treasure hunt ensued. Roberts flew to London hoping to uncover clues about Holman's life. But with the exception of the Blind Traveler's published books, he mainly found dead ends. Archival evidence of Holman's time on earth was scant. Europe's libraries and archives, which have little choice but to constantly weed dead weight from their collections, had year by year discarded documents regarding Holman's life. At the archives of Windsor Castle, for example—where Holman resided as a member of the Naval Knights of Windsor, a group of military invalids—the archivist showed Roberts a half-empty cardboard box containing all that remained of the Naval Knights program. One hundred years of history fit comfortably into a single container.
Roberts realized the last vestiges of Holman's adventures all stood on the chopping block. "If I had waited even two more years, they would have been lost," he says.
With the help of research assistants, he slowly pieced together Holman's story. Serendipity was a frequent contributor. While searching newspaper archives, it dawned on his team to stop looking for "James Holman" and start searching for his sobriquet: "The Blind Traveler." At the British Library, Roberts mistakenly stepped into the wrong research terminal and by happenstance discovered Holman's legal documents. The search continued for five years.
But the more Roberts learned about Holman, the more compelled he felt to not give up. The echoes of September 11 motivated him as well. Roberts believed the attacks had prompted people to become uncharacteristically apprehensive, to close themselves off to different cultures and unfamiliar people. Perhaps Holman could be an antidote: Here was the story of a man who trusted strangers in a way unbridled by cynicism, suspicion, or fear. Holman was not naïve—he had experienced horrors—but nevertheless, wherever he traveled, he carried the belief that humans everywhere shared a common goodness. You just had to tap into it.
"The idea of somebody going to these foreign countries alone, not knowing a word of the language, having almost no money, and going to Africa and idly taking the hand of a native to be taken into the interior ... that was a model I felt like we needed emotionally as a nation," Roberts says. "Holman was an inspiration not just in the sense of overcoming obstacles, but in literally transmuting pain and embracing chaos. He's a reminder that we need to take not a leap of faith, but a very long walk of faith into new realms."
Holman was living proof that, sometimes, the greatest form of bravery is a faithful optimism in others.
The ensuing book, A Sense of the World, would indeed reinvigorate interest in Holman's legacy. (Holman's resting place at Highgate Cemetery, for instance, is not only clear and clean, it's now a stop on tours.) But Roberts was most heartened to learn how the blind community has adopted Holman as part of their heritage: In June 2017, the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a non-profit based in San Francisco, awarded their first "James Holman Prize For Blind Ambition," a $25,000 prize to blind or partially sighted individuals with big dreams. This year's inaugural winners include a kayaker who will develop a guidance system enabling him to paddle solo across Turkey's Bosphorus Strait; a former political prisoner in Uganda who wants to train other blind people in the art of beekeeping; and, fittingly, a member of the British Royal Navy who will host her own traveling cooking show, an Anthony-Bourdain-meets-Julia-Child program designed to break cultural barriers and teach baking techniques to the visually impaired.
And the canon of sightless explorers is getting longer, too. Miles Hilton has run across the Gobi Desert, flown a plane from London to Sydney, and become a motivational speaker. The mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer has climbed the highest points on all seven continents, including Mount Everest. Caroline Casey, founder of Kanchi, a non-profit dedicated to challenging stereotypes regarding disabilities, rode an elephant by herself across 600 miles of India.
Holman would have approved. In 1835, after he successfully wrapped around the globe, he pondered his next move, writing, "I have traversed so many lands, and ploughed so many seas that ... I hardly know, were I once more to venture upon the waters, to what point of the compass I should direct my course."
That uncertainty was a running theme during James Holman's life: He rarely knew where he'd be heading next. And perhaps that was the point.