James Holman: “The Narrative of a Journey”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

For Jim, in honor of his birthday

In 2007, my husband, Jim, and I heard about Jason Roberts’s book, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler. It sounded fascinating: a biography of a British naval officer who completely lost his sight at age 25 and then proceeded to travel around the world – and in the most exotic and, often, dangerous places.

Born in 1786, James Holman rose to the rank of lieutenant in the British Royal Navy. When he fell ill and lost his sight in 1825, he was forced to give up his career as a naval officer. But in his time with the navy, he had been bitten by the travel bug – and travel became his life’s quest ever after. In 1832, he became the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe.

Our favorite expedition found Holman at the edge of the world’s most famous live volcano – Mount Vesuvius. As I read Roberts’s biography aloud (a way we sometimes share books), I could barely make it through this scene – it was that hair-raising! I could not imagine myself – a sighted person – going to the very precipice of a live volcano, yet here was 19th-century blind James Holman pushing the envelope about as far as anyone could.

Holman was a sensation in his time, and deservedly so. As one source says, “In a time when blind people were thought to be almost totally helpless, and usually given a bowl to beg with, Holman’s ability to sense his surroundings by the reverberations of a tapped cane or horse’s hoof-beats was unfathomable.”

Roberts’s biography of Holman is a great way into the story of this extraordinary man’s life – and if you want a peak into the book, visit Roberts’s website. You can also listen to NPR’s story on A Sense of the World. If you’re hungry for more, you might want to check out Holman’s books. The Narrative of a Journey is available on Google Books, and the first volume of A Voyage Round the World is available at Project Gutenberg.

Unfortunately, Holman’s life came to a sad end. Pensioned as a member of the Naval Knights of Windsor, he was required to live at Windsor Castle. Sounds grand, I know, but the reality was far different from what you might suppose. The accommodations were meager at best, and Holman – who longed to travel – chafed at the requirement that he live at Windsor Castle and attend religious services twice a day. He frequently applied for leaves of absence from his Windsor Castle duties and was granted such leaves from time to time, but not nearly as often as he desired. This active, still vital man hated to be confined to one place.

Jason Roberts, Holman’s biographer, sums up his legacy this way:

He was known simply as the Blind Traveler – a solitary, sightless adventurer who fought the slave trade in Africa, survived a frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon and helped chart the Australian outback. Once a celebrity, a bestselling author and inspiration to Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the charismatic, witty James Holman outlived his fame, dying in . . . obscurity [in 1857]. . . .

Jim and I are thrilled that Roberts has worked so hard to resurrect interest in Holman’s extraordinary life. Whether you read The Narrative of a Journey, A Voyage Round the World, or A Sense of the World, you’ll be inspired by all that is possible for human beings who dare to tackle the impossible!

Listen:Listen as I read an excerpt from James Holman’s 1822 book, The Narrative of a Journey. In this scene, Holman tells of going to the very edge of Mount Vesuvius.

Image credit: A portrait of James Holman, painted in 1830. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James.Holman.by.George.Chinnery.1830.jpg