27 August 2013

James Holman Explained

At last, I get to discuss James Holman! Another obscure British guy, just like Samuel Johnson (but I promise that this one didn't write a dictionary and obscure things.)

Imagine you were blind. On top of being blind, you suffered severe rheumatism and arthritis that left you in constant pain. Every time you tried to get up in the morning, you would suffer such severe pain that you couldn't get out of bed and you'd have to lie there. Now imagine traveling all by yourself in distant lands with those disabilities. Alone, far away from your native country (Britain, let's say). Now imagine travelling over 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) all over the world, surpassing everyone's efforts of all time. Can you?

Welcome to the strange, inspiring, exciting world of James Holman, the "Blind Traveller".

Too bad he couldn't see this painting, but oh well...
He was awesome.

James Holman, oddly and unfairly, is astonishingly forgotten about in today's "travelling society". What do I mean by "travelling society"? Think back two hundred years. There were only two ways of travelling: through water, by ship, which could either give you scurvy (until 1850-thereabouts), long routes and seasickness, or by land, which could be dangerous (mountains, etc). So most people didn't travel unless you were a sailor, a marchant, or eccentric.

James Holman belonged to all three of these. He was in the Royal Navy officially, he grew up in his father's apothecary, and he was definitely an eccentric (in the eyes of Victorian society, where the farthest people travelled was to the nearest coffeeshop to read the latest Dickens serial.)

Holman was born in 1786, the fourth son of his parents. He began working in the apothecary as soon as he was old enough, and then joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13 as a volunteer. Nine years later he'd become a lieutenant. However in 1810 he'd succumb to a disease that affected his joints, then finally made him completely blind at the age of 25.

In spite of all of this, Holman persevered. In those days, to be blind meant you were a pariah to all, scorned and avoided on the streets. The higher classes would assume you were mentally deranged, the lower orders would assume you had syphilis or something and stay well away from you. He was given free room and board in Windsor Castle in exchange for praying at church twice a day, but that didn't go so well with him.

Holman realized that this would be his only chance of exploring the worlds beyond he'd heard about many times in the Navy and by merchants. He requested many leaves of absence by the Navy, as excuses to go and study first, then to go on a Grand Tour.

Side Note: The Grand Tour is basically something upper-class men did when they became of age, around 21-25. They would go to the "Continent" (Americans, that's the European continent) if they were British, and begin around France. They'd visit different countries, peoples, and experience culture. It'd last about 2 or 3 years, which upon ending, they would return home and be considered a man. Best manhood test I've ever heard in any society.

Holman decided to travel the world west-to-east: which was unheard of at the time, but is now generally accepted. (US to Europe to Asia, etc) He began his journey and travelled as far as Siberia and Mongolia. By that time, the Russian Czar believed he was a spy and sent Holman back to Poland. Holman returned but now he vowed to visit even more lands.

By this he amazingly succeeded. He visited South America and befriended natives. He charted unknown areas of Africa and vigorously tried to stop the slave trade (which got him a river named in his honor). He went to the Pacific Islands and more. He published many books, though his last book, completed a week before his death, was never published and "likely has not survived". Holman died at 70.

And how exactly did a blind man do a trip, alone, during some of the most dangerous times ever? He turned to the bats. Holman took a cane everywhere with him, which he'd tap on the ground or on nearby areas and hear the sounds and reverberations. Echolocation, quite basically. Of course, many distrusted this and many thought he was a fraud since people can be quite narrow-minded, which is likely how this remarkable man became forgotten in the first place.

If you want to find out more, read A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts. Very inspiring.


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