James Holman is most likely to be someone you have never heard of. James Holman is also the man who has travelled the most of anyone in the world, ever. And what's more he did it all, every bit of it, blind. And what's still more, he did it 200 years ago. He was quite simply, an amazing man, and with all our modern gadgetry and gimics, we are unlikely ever to see the likes of him again. His story is so unlikely, so incredible, so unique, you could even wonder if it is in fact true. So extraordinary is it, that the reviewer from The Guardian, actually thought the book was 'a spoof, an elaborate hoax designed to expose confusions in our attitudes to disability' But no James Holman and his story is 100% real.
James was born in 1786 and went to sea when he was a boy, working his way up to lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Continuous and prolonged exposure to the elements on board ship resulted in him developing severe rheumatism and a sudden loss of his sight when he was in his early 20s. Far from letting this catastrophe ruin his life, and being quite a clever and resourceful young man, he managed to continue his love of discovering the world around him for the rest of his days, essentially by himself. In the process he went simply everywhere, carefully documenting what he 'saw', what he felt, the people he met, the societies he was able to get to know, the extraordinary things that happened to him, the close shaves he had. In his day he became a celebrity, not just because he did all this as a blind person, although he did become known as the 'Blind Traveller', but because of how the way he saw the world produced a completely different style of travel writing from ever before. Charles Darwin was indebted to him for his writings on the Cocos Islands, he had the ear of Queen Victoria's personal physician, he almost caused a diplomatic incident while trying to cross Russia from west to east, he lived with the Australia aboriginies for a period of time and wrote about them from a perspective never considered before. He was a man of enormous courage, charm, intelligence, fearlessness and above all curiosity.
This is, quite simply, an amazing story. But it is not just about a man and his meanderings around the world. The true gift he brings to what he reports is that he is 'seeing'without using his eyes, and consequently he 'sees' things that us sighted people don't see, plus he sees everything differently from how us sighted ones see. Have you ever considered that blind people don't get vertigo, or agarophobia? That they use echos to navigate their way round around? It is a fabulous book, and written with enormous respect, affection and awe by this author. We are unlikely to ever see the likes of him again, and what a great shame that is.