The Blind Traveler Who Traveled the World Alone!
James Holman in Siberia
James Holman and the Beginning
James Holman was born in 1786 in the United Kingdom. He entered the British Royal Navy in 1798 at the age of twelve as a first-class volunteer, and shortly after that, he was promoted to Lieutenant in 1807. While on active duty aboard the Guerriere, he took ill that affected his joints, making it painful even to move. Before long, it changed his eyes, rendering him blind. It was devastating to this twenty-five-year-old who wanted so much to serve at sea.
Because this medical problem was duty-related in 1812, he was appointed to the Royal Knights of Windsor. The men assigned were limited to seven and would receive a life-time grant of care and room and board at Windsor Castle. Their only requirement was to attend church twice a day in the chapel.
H was a man with a zest for life to be suddenly confined to a small room and limited to mobility was too much for him. He needed to be active, and so he requested a leave of absence to go to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine and literature. Back then, there were no requirements to study at the university, and learning was by lectures, so it fit Holman perfectly. Holman was the first blind man to attend medical school.
Holman's First Solo Trip
Holman was able with a doctor's recommendation that travel would be beneficial for him, and so, the Knights allowed him to go on a trip. Originally his brother was to accompany him but was unable to get time off. Undeterred, Holman was going to go alone and document his travels, later writing a book about his travels. Now, remember, he was blind, and this was before Braille was invented. Braille was not invented until 1824, and the white cane was not in use until 1931, but Holman fashioned a walking stick for his purpose.
His first tour in 1819 was to go to France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Imagine arriving in a land with no eyesight, knowing no one there, little money, not knowing the language. Holman would travel by foot, ox cart, horse, or whatever means he could. When he was in France, he would tie a rope to the end of a carriage, and taking the other end in his hand, and he followed the cart. People watched this and thought he was a little "off," but because Holman was attractive, charismatic, and genuine, people began to help him along his travels.
He was frugal with his small stipend eating fruits and vegetables along the way, sleeping wherever he could.
Holman and Slave Ships
Holman's Trip to Gulf of Guinea
Holman met a Captain Fritz William Owen, who was commissioned to start a settlement in Fernando Po, an island in the Gulf of Guinea. His task was to capture slave ships and set the human cargo free. This area was severely infected with malaria and known as "White Man's Grave." Many of the crew died, and out of 135 men, only 12 survived, and Holman was one of them. Holman and Owen did manage to free three ships of captured slaves.
He then caught a ride on a Dutch ship to Brazil, where Holman fell in with a mule train and explored Brazil. He then managed to secure a place on a Royal Navy ship to the Cape of Good Hope.
While on the ship, he was welcomed, and he amused the crew with the stories of his travels.
Holman's First Book
Holman's Return to London
By now, he had been traveling five years and upon his return, he was censured by the Knights. Then in 1836, he convinced two doctors to write a petition for another medical leave. Relenting, the Knights granted him a four-month leave. He was determined to go to Ireland.
Holman's book, The Narrative of a Journey, 1819-1821.
Book by Jason Roberts
Book by Jason Roberts
A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler. Jason Roberts tells in detail how a blind man circumvented the world.
Holman was able to travel with little money, no knowledge of the many languages, a stranger in the land, yet with his charisma made many friends and became famous then forgotten after he died.
After Holman returned to England in 1857 with his health declining, he died in July 1857, having accomplished an almost unbelievable feat. It has been said that he traveled five continents, visited 200 distinct cultures, and traveled a quarter of a million miles.
A full account of his life by Peter Clissold is held in St. George's Chapel Archives London. His final manuscript is missing, and perhaps someday it will be found. Holman was a remarkable man determined not to let a disability stop him. A friend of Holman's, William Jerden, wrote in his book, Men I have Known, "he had eyes in his mouth, eyes in his nose, eyes in his ears and eyes in his mind."
San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind
Since 2017, the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually impaired has awarded an annual Holman Prize in his honor. Three blind people are selected and given $25,000. to support them in an adventurous project.
Lighthouse for the Blind is located 1155 Market St., San Francisco, Ca. They can be reached at 415-694-7311.