TravelJames Holman, the Englishman who traveled with his senses

James Holman, the Englishman who traveled with his senses


This is the story of a young British man who made three trips around the world starting in 1819. Named James Holman, the young man left England to tour part of Europe on a trip that resembled the Grand Tour, those trips in which the wealthy students of the time enjoyed the art of ancient civilizations.

After his return in 1822, he decides to undertake another trip, this time more ambitious: to travel the world from West to East, but due to various vicissitudes that we will detail later, he is forced to return to England again.

A few years later, he sets sail from England, this time by sea, to circumnavigate the world. These three trips would be narrated in three autobiographical works that would have great success in Victorian England.

An exceptional adventurer

At first it may seem like the story of one more of the adventurers of nineteenth-century Europe who set out to travel the known world at the time. There were many. But not like him. James Holman was totally blind. And he undertook those trips totally alone, without company. His story has not been told enough, and it deserves to be known to us.

In any case, we must say that Holman was not blind from birth; Born in the English city of Exeter on October 15, 1786, he was the son of a chemist, and had a quiet childhood, without major setbacks.

From a very young age he felt a great attraction to discover other parts of the world, and perhaps for this reason he entered the British Royal Navy in 1798 (he was barely 12 years old). With the Navy he toured the ocean repeatedly, and in 1807 he became a lieutenant. But everything changed in 1810, at the age of 25.

Holman’s disease

Holman had fallen ill with rheumatism, and the disease became complicated. So much so that he irremediably affected her vision until he ran out of her. A dramatic event for anyone, and catastrophic for him. The young lieutenant was forced to leave the British Royal Navy.

Portrait of James Holman. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

However, he did not encounter economic difficulties to survive. The Windsor Knights of the Navy awarded him a life pension, and provided him with lodgings at Windsor Castle. He was to lead a quiet, carefree life, dedicated to resting and attending church.

But Holman was not a person destined for seclusion. Later he moved to Edinburgh, where he enrolled in medical school and where he would become the first blind person to do so.

The trip that would change everything

At one point, he thought that a slightly warmer climate would do his health good. Thus, on October 15, 1819, the day he turned 32, he left the port of Dover for France. And that trip would change everything.

Holman would tour France, Italy, Switzerland, part of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Two years traveling alone, trusting in the collaboration of the people he would meet along the way.

And that was what helped him to overcome the pain derived from his illness: the experiences, the vicissitudes of the trip, the sensations that would result from it… Traveling saved his life.

Upon returning to England, he would write the first of his memoirs: A Narrative of a Journey, undertaken in the years 1819, 1820, and 1821, through France, Italy, Savoy, Switzerland, parts of Germany bordering on the Rhine, Holland, and the Netherlands, etc. , published in 1822. And it was an enormous success, both in sales and criticism, in Victorian England.

Around the world from west to east

Almost immediately after the publication of his first book, in 1822, our indefatigable traveler would leave his home again, this time with a much more ambitious plan: to go around the world from west to east.

The plan was to cross Russia, Siberia, Mongolia and China, and from there embark to Hawaii. Once in Hawaii, depending on his state and how the trip would have gone, he would improvise. A really ambitious idea, perhaps too brave, for the time. Let us remember that he would carry out the trip, as was his habit, totally alone.

But Holman did not count on something that would prevent him from reaching his destination: the interference of the authorities. In Moscow, for reasons that are not entirely clear (perhaps he was suspected of espionage), the Russian authorities imprisoned him, and returned him to the Russian border.

He had no choice but to abandon his ambitious plan and return to England. That did not prevent him from publishing, in 1825, the second of his works: Travels through Russia, Siberia, Poland, Austria, Saxony, Prussia, Hanover, etc.

The first blind person to circumnavigate the world

And, a year later, he would embark on the adventure again, this time by sea, a medium in which, let us remember, he had great experience. Holman would set sail from Plymouth Harbor, and would sail across four continents, becoming the first blind person to circumnavigate the world.

An absolute feat. An adventure that would make him one of the most famous personalities in England, and an example to follow for many people. He would also write a narrative of this last trip, A Voyage Round the World, including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, etc. , published in 5 volumes between 1834 and 1835. A first-rate source to get closer to the context of the places that visit, including the island of Tenerife.

Holman’s amazing development of senses

But the question that arises when reading his story is simple: how did he do it? How was he able to narrate experiences that, in principle, a blind person could hardly have? Well, simply, developing his senses in an amazing way.

A friend of his wrote that Holman had no vision in his eyes, but he had eyes in the rest of his body: he had eyes in his mouth, in his nose, in his ears, and in his mind. For example, on his first trip he ascended Vesuvius, in Naples. At the base of the caldera, he felt the active movement of the magma under his feet. When asked if he needed help, he replied: “I see things better with my feet.” Two years later, Vesuvius erupted.

Engraving of Vesuvius. Holman noticed the imminent eruption of the volcano by the activity of the magma under his feet.

Holman became able to recognize the characteristics of the places through the vibration produced by the blows of his cane on the ground. He could guess a person’s social status by listening to the sound of his footsteps. He enjoyed art running his hands over the sculptures and buildings. He didn’t have sight, but he had the rest of his senses. And they did not fail him.

I travel the world. He met places and people very little known at the time. He was imprisoned in remote Russia. He participated in the freeing of slaves in Guinea. It is not our intention to resort to the topic, but Holman’s life was a novel life. James Holman died in 1857 in London, after touring most of the known world. His last trips were through Spain, Portugal, Moldova, Montenegro, Syria and Turkey, but he died before leaving them in writing.

As we said, at his death he was one of the best-known personalities in England, but over time he fell into oblivion. His story was lost in memory, until in recent years it began to be recovered, especially through the author Jason Roberts, who in 2006 wrote an interesting book about his story: A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler .

Since 2017, the Holman Prize has been convened annually, intended to reward the adventurous spirit and improvement of blind people.

The memory of James Holman was slow to recover after his death. But his exciting life is an example of self-improvement, autonomy and search for adventure that makes him one of the most interesting travelers we can approach.

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