James Holman was born on 15 October 1786 in Exeter, England. His father was an apothecary and James was a healthy young boy with perfect vision who dreamed of seeing the world.
He was only 12 years old when he joined the Royal Navy in 1799, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. He served there for a dozen years, patrolling the freezing waters off Canada and New England, rising to the rank of lieutenant by April 1807.
In 1810, while on board the Guerriere, Holman became ill with a form of rheumatism that caused him lifelong crippling pain and total blindness at the age of 25. The pain was often so bad he couldn’t get out of bed.
He was honored as a war hero and given a lifetime grant of care in Windsor Castle.
In the early nineteenth century, blind people were given bowls to beg with and rags to cover their eyes, but James Holman refused to wear a blindfold and managed to overcome the social stigma of blindness and became a celebrity traveler and best-selling author.
When doctors told him that there was no cure for his blindness, James Holman went to Edinburgh and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh.
He was about a decade older than most students and at that time braille hadn’t been invented so he couldn’t read textbooks but he managed to complete his studies by repeatedly attending lectures.
His doctor advised him to leave Scotland and recommended travel to a warmer climate. Holman went to France and Italy where he discovered that travel was his best treatment. Traveling alone in the next couple of years, he had covered Switzerland, parts of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
When he returned he published a book about his adventures in Europe
In 1822, he ambled through parts of Russia but this attempt was stopped by the Russian government, and Holman was roughly hauled through Siberia and into Austria by one of the tsar’s personal bodyguards. After two years, Holman arrived in Hull in June 1824. He learned that his book was selling well and that he was famous in his country. He was now known as the Blind Traveller.
After he wrote a second best seller about his Siberian adventure, Holman could now afford a trip by ship to West Africa and from there he moved on to Brazil and later to South Africa, Zanzibar, and Mauritius.
He went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Calcutta, and Canton (now Guangzhou). From China, he headed to Australia. Across the Pacific, he went to Brazil again and later he headed home.
In 1832, he arrived in England and set to work on his third book, A Voyage round the World, including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America etc from 1827 to 1832. But his new book wasn’t received as well as his previous efforts.
In 1840, when he was 54 years old, he left England again and went to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. He visited Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Syria, and the Holy Land. He also went to Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt and then to Bosnia, Montenegro, and Hungary.
After six years he returned home where he was already forgotten and no one was interested in publishing a book about his last journey.
He lived in London for the rest of his life. He died on 28 July 1857. In his lifetime, the Blind Traveler is said to have covered more than 250,000 miles through five continents and 200 distinct cultures.
To read more about the adventures of the Blind Traveler check out the book “A Sense of the World” by Jason Roberts.