A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler

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9780007161263: A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler

He was known simply as the Blind Traveler. A solitary, sightless adventurer, James Holman (1786-1857) fought the slave trade in Africa, survived a frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon, helped chart the Australian outback—and, astonishingly, circumnavigated the globe, becoming one of the greatest wonders of the world he so sagaciously explored. A Sense of the World is a spellbinding and moving rediscovery of one of history's most epic lives—a story to awaken our own senses of awe and wonder.

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About the Author:

Jason Roberts is the inaugural winner of the Van Zorn Prize for emerging writers (sponsored by Michael Chabon) and a contributor to the Village Voice, McSweeney's, The Believer, and other publications. He lives in Northern California.

From The Washington Post:

Before there were cars, long-distance buses, high-speed trains and jet airplanes, there was a man who traveled a quarter of a million miles. He did it by cart, by carriage, by sledge, by ship and by foot. And he did it "intermittently crippled" and "permanently blind." His name was James Holman, and for a time he was the most famous of the many intrepid English travelers who set out for faraway places at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Holman and his heroic achievements are all but forgotten today. Long before his death in 1857, he had faded into lonely obscurity, a relic of a romantic, pre-mechanized age. Jason Roberts first saw mention of him in a slim book called Eccentric Travelers. But Holman's only eccentricity was his urgent need "to cling to the road like a lifeline," writes Roberts in A Sense of the World, an eloquent and sympathetic biography of the long-gone voyager.

Holman's afflictions were somewhat mysterious. Born in Essex in 1786, he'd gone to sea in the Royal Navy at the age of 12. After three years spent on the damp, frigid deck of the HMS Cambrian, a frigate based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Holman developed what seemed to be rheumatism, an old man's illness that afflicted many young sailors. When he sought a cure in Bath, his rheumatic symptoms eased, but he lost his sight mysteriously and completely.

Roberts is gruesomely thorough in depicting the perils -- mostly from the medical profession -- that threatened the blind in the early 19th century. "In 1811," writes Roberts, "even the most enlightened medical professional knew no more about the eye than might a curious butcher." Cures for blindness included leeches, couching (poking a thick needle into the pupil) and setons (threads sewn vertically between the shoulder blades "to draw down the head's malignant humors"; they invariably became septic). If none of those methods worked (and it was pure luck if they did), the blind could expect a life of reliance on charity: "Almost no one wanted to hire the blind . . . . Most sighted people were unsettled by [their] presence," writes Roberts.

But Holman rejected every curb on his independence. He refused to wear the customary rag over his eyes, and he developed a surefire way of moving around on his own: a metal walking stick that produced "an authoritative series of taps" allowing him to navigate by sound. And to avoid outright charity, he finagled a lifetime appointment as a Naval Knight of Windsor, which provided him with lodging and a stipend as long as he attended daily service in the castle's chapel.

Holman did not attend chapel for long. His health began to fail, and his doctors conveniently prescribed convalescence in sunny France. It was Holman's first solo journey in a foreign country, and he found it exhilarating. Likely, his doctors did not envision the sort of footloose travel cure that he came to favor. Granted a one-year leave from the Naval Knights, he was away for two, traveling through much of Europe, never staying in one place very long. Travel, he quickly realized, was "the only thing keeping him alive."

When he returned, he wrote a bestselling book of his journeys that earned him the sobriquet the "Blind Traveler." And he began making ambitious (and surreptitious) plans to circumnavigate the globe. His poverty dictated his itinerary -- and his wish to circumvent officious friends dictated the secretiveness. He decided to go by land through Russia, traveling like the "impoverished peasantry . . . in simple horse-drawn carts and wheel-less sledges" and saving money "by engaging no guide or translator, trusting himself to pick up the notoriously difficult Russian language in transit." His friends would have been right to interfere. "Reaching the Pacific this way," writes Roberts, "meant crossing some of the world's coldest, harshest, and least-charted terrain, lands so bleak that even the more hospitable parts had been serving as a much-dreaded penal colony for almost two centuries."

But nothing could have pleased Holman more, as he later wrote: "I was engaged under circumstances of unusual occurrence, in a solitary journey of several thousand miles,through a country, perhaps the wildest on the face of the earth, and whose inhabitants were scarcely yet accounted within the pale of civilization; with no other attendant than a rude Tartar postillion, to whose language my ear was wholly unaccustomed. And yet I was supported by a feeling of happy confidence."

And he almost pulled it off, making it as far as Irkutsk, "the world's most isolated city," when the czar got wind of the traveling Englishman. Fearing that Holman would discover the extent of Russia's forays into North America, Czar Alexander had the blind man unceremoniously kidnapped and dumped on the Polish border.

Holman's Russian troubles weren't over when he returned to England. There, he discovered that a treacherous fellow traveler had leveled charges that would dog Holman for rest of his life. John Dundas Cochrane, known as the "Pedestrian Traveler," had made it almost as far across Russia as Holman had, on foot. But in his account of his journey, he made Holman into "a sort of harbinger marking the end of risk," asking "Who will then say that Siberia is a wild, inhospitable, or impassible country, when even the blind can traverse it with safety?"

While that charge -- that if the blind Holman could make the journey, it was no great traveling feat -- became a theme of later reviews of Holman's books, it hardly dampened his wanderlust. Into his sixth decade, he was "an intrepid invalid (at times simultaneously incapable of standing up and standing still)." He embarked on what was for the Royal Navy "the deadliest expedition of all time" to the miasmic African island of Fernando Po, an outpost for attacks on the slave trade. From there, he went on to Buenos Aires, South Africa, Madagascar, India, China, Australia and beyond. "Somewhere in the Atlantic, approaching England, Holman at last completed his circuit of the world," writes Roberts.

Holman died alone in London, a week after finishing the autobiography that he hoped would be his claim to long-lasting fame. That book was never published; his heir lost the manuscript. But at last Holman has an enthusiastic champion. Perhaps too enthusiastic: Roberts is rather quick to defend some of Holman's more egregious errors, including his tendency to pad his books with unreliable accounts of places to which he'd never traveled. And yet his obvious admiration for Holman is right and proper: The man "could claim a thorough acquaintance with every inhabited continent, and direct contact with at least two hundred distinctly separate cultures," and he did so by willing himself forward, past every obstacle. Roberts's vibrant prose and meticulous recreation of Holman's world offer modern readers a chance to see what Holman saw as he tapped his way around the globe.

Reviewed by Rachel Hartigan Shea
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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