‘A Sense of the World’: Around the Globe With a Blind Man
Travel Books: Jason Roberts documents the life of James Holman, who became a prolific traveler in the 1800s after losing his sight. Liz Sinclair finds the man -- and the book -- compelling.
11.27.06 | 7:20 AM ET
Recently, I took a trip to Kupang, in West Timor. I was assigned the last room in a small motel that turned out to share a wall with a chicken coop. The resident rooster mistook the full moon for the sun and started crowing each morning at 3 a.m. I moved to a hostel. A dog howled outside the window of my hostel room all night. I picked up a bout of diarrhea that lingered. Taxi fares mysteriously doubled after reaching destinations. I found myself unable to shake certain persistent, lonely Timorese men who wanted to practice their English, and possibly other skills as well.
I started to wonder why I had left the comforts of home. Then I thought of James Holman, whose biography I had recently read. Holman, before the modern era, became the greatest traveler in history after losing his sight at the age of 25. Maybe my trip wasn’t really that bad, after all.
Holman is the subject of an insightful, highly detailed and gripping new biography by Jason Roberts called A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler. Roberts, who does his writing in libraries, once came across a book entitled “Eccentric Travelers” during a “wander break.” The book contained a short chapter about a blind man named James Holman who traveled the world in the 1800s and wrote bestselling books about his trips. Roberts, intrigued, and unable to find any other information about the Blind Traveler, decided to write a biography himself of the man who almost 200 years before had thrilled and engaged readers with his exploits crossing Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, yet who was virtually forgotten by the public within years of his death in 1857.
Before Holman, the greatest documented traveler was a Moroccan named Shams ad-Din who, in the mid-14th century, travelled around 75,000 miles, including the entire medieval Islamic world. By comparison, Marco Polo travelled only about 14,000 miles. Between 1819 and 1846, Holman travelled over 250,000 miles. As Roberts puts it: “Alone, sightless, with no prior command of native languages and with only a wisp of funds, he had forged a path equivalent to wandering to the moon.”
Roberts’s book is brimming with reference to 18th century English life in almost exhaustive detail. In the hands of another writer, the level of detail, the imagined conversations, might have been tedious, but Roberts writes with an engaging, uncomplicated, smooth style, and ends each chapter with a new dilemma that leaves the reader wanting more, crafting biography as a page-turner. Holman’s life certainly lends itself to an adventure novel but Roberts takes the time to draw out the complexities of Holman’s character, creating a thorough study of the forces that compelled Holman to live as he did.
James Holman was born in Exeter, England in 1787. His early naval career, cut short by a rheumatic condition and blindness when he was still a young man, may have first inspired his love of travel. Although Holman tried a succession of doctors seeking a cure, he quickly accepted that blindness was likely to be a permanent condition. Facing slow physical decline and the sharply curtailed life of an invalid—he suffered from crippling pain and illness his entire life—Holman set out to acquire skills that would make him independent.
He developed a system of echolocation, using a cane to sound out his environment, until he was confident even in unfamiliar settings. He learned to ride a horse. He invented carbon paper to produce his travel manuscripts, using a writing machine developed for night battlefields. Holman even trained at university as a physician, memorizing his lectures in lieu of taking notes. He was inducted into the Royal Society and influenced men such as Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Francis Burton. Holman’s achievements and autonomy would be remarkable even today.
Reading this book, I didn’t mind that I was getting an instructive education on 18th century British society as this was necessary to understand Holman’s world and his reasons for traveling. I was so thoroughly immersed in the Georgian era by Roberts’s meticulous research that I hardly noticed that Holman’s famous journeys don’t begin until a third of the way into the book.
Roberts speculates, probably correctly, that travel was Holman’s way of distracting himself from chronic pain, of keeping himself absorbed in the outside world and not allowing retreat into an invalid’s state or self-pity. Between trips, Holman became restless and anxious, and his health often deteriorated.
Holman was able to bridge cultural divides by honing his listening skills, empathy and rapport. He mingled easily with all levels of society. His absorption, and his skills of relating, made him an observant and astute writer. Despite our modern ability to move from the first to the third world in a matter of hours, the most intractable obstacles that challenge travelers today are the same ones that Holman faced: communication and understanding. Despite the distance of centuries, Holman is a modern role model, particularly in a xenophobic post-9/11 world. Sadly, Holman’s works are not in print, but this may change given his new exposure.