James Holman was born to travel. It was all he wanted to do from an early age — his father owned an apothecary shop in the British town of Exeter, and the shop was filled with the smells of spices and plants from the rest of the world. When he wasn’t in the shop, Holman would walk down to the port. Exeter sits on the tip of the Exe estuary leading out to sea, which made the town the country’s second largest inland port behind London. There, Holman could hear tales of foreign lands and the high seas.
But at the time — the late 1700s and early 1800s — the only way for the son of an apothecary to see the world was to join the British Navy. So at age 12, that’s what he did, as a volunteer on the ships that made Britain one of the world’s greatest superpowers. By the time he was 21, he had worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant. His ship, the HMS Guerriere, was tasked with the job of hunting pirates and patrolling the coasts of the Americas. And it was there, at the age of 24, off the coast of the new United States, that Holman was suddenly struck with an illness that would eventually take his eyesight.
Just a few years into his career, Holman could no longer see the world he’d always longed to see. Since he’d lost his sight in the line of duty, the British government offered him room and board at Windsor Castle, but the life there was too quiet for him. So over the years, he’d apply for leaves of absence — first to attend university in Edinburgh, then to finally tour around Europe.
Upon his return, he wrote a book and realized that being blind didn’t have to stop him from spending the rest of his life traveling.
A sense of the world
Holman’s full story is laid out in Jason Roberts’ excellent book A Sense of the World. By the end of Holman’s life, he was one of the most well-traveled people of all time, and in an age where recreational travel just wasn’t a thing: most people who were out exploring the world were doing so in search of treasure or power or money, or at the behest of a national government. Holman traveled mostly for pleasure, and to write accounts of his trips. He became known as the “Blind Traveler,” and his writings would actually be cited by Charles Darwin in his famous book The Voyage of the Beagle.
Perhaps the most incredible story of Holman’s life, though, was right in his home country on the River Thames. While he was asleep, a coal ship had collided with the ship he was aboard, and his ship’s anchor chain snapped. This sent the vessel lurching from its moorings and into the middle of the river, where it could very possibly be hit again.
Holman, still a former sailor, went up on deck in his pajamas to help the crew right the ship, but when he reached the helm, he found that there was no one there. The captain was off trying to keep the ship afloat and began screaming orders back to the helm. At the captain’s direction, Holman guided the ship into port. It wasn’t until they were safely moored that the captain realized they’d been steered to safety by a blind man.
The way Holman was able to orient himself in the world around him was through echolocation. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard of bats or dolphins doing it — basically, it’s the act of making a noise, listening for the echoes, and then judging how far certain objects are based on how quickly the echo returns. It’s a pretty difficult thing to do, and while there are some blind people who get around using echolocation (mostly by making clicking noises with their mouths), it is not the norm, and it takes a long time to learn.
Holman was a very early practitioner of human echolocation — Roberts tells a story of Holman entering a crowded restaurant to meet two friends. One of the friends whispered to the other to be quiet when Holman entered the room, so they could see if he could find them. He immediately walked over to the table — dodging other tables and people in the crowded restaurant, and sat down. He’d heard their whispers, he told them, as soon as he walked into the room, and was able to separate them from the rest of the noise and clatter of the restaurant. It was like he could see them.
Traveling around the world blind
Holman lived to the age of 70, and he kept traveling for most of that time. His first attempt at a circumnavigation ended quickly — he only made it across Europe and into Russia before being deported from Siberia after the Czar suspected him of being a spy. When he returned, he’d found that his travelogues of his previous trips had sold well, which gave him a bit extra income for traveling more.
He took off again — this time to western Africa, on a deadly voyage where all but 12 of the 135 crew died of malaria. Holman, who’d been trained as a doctor after being discharged from the army, helped care for the sick men. From there, he sailed to Brazil, then to South Africa, and then up through the Indian Ocean. In Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka), he participated in an elephant hunt. It took him a full 5 years to complete his circumnavigation. And that was not his last trip.
By the end of his life, Roberts estimates, Holman chalked up 250,000 miles traveled. This is further than the distance from the earth to the moon. Holman was forgotten in his later years — there were just too many other great travelers out there, from Charles Darwin to Nellie Bly to Charles Lindbergh. The blind traveler was lost to history. But we can remember him now as the man who was told by the world that his disability meant he’d have to stay home, and who gently, spectacularly, ignored the world’s advice.