Book Review-A Sense of the World

It has been a while since I last wrote about traveling. That is mainly because I have not done any traveling lately, something that I hope to change soon. After all, traveling is one of the most valuable and invigorating experiences a person can have in life, in my opinion. If you don’t travel, you lose the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the wider world.

In an effort to take to the road without actually taking to the road, I recently read A Sense of the World-How a Blind Man became History’s Greatest Traveler, written by Jason Roberts. The book is a biography of James Holman, a fearless traveling Englishman, who, in spite of his blindness, was able to travel all over the world. What makes the story even more compelling is that he did his traveling in the first half of the 19th century.

Holman was not blind from birth. He was born in 1787, one of six brothers and the son of a pharmacist. In those days, class structures were very rigid in England, and Holman’s father had high ambitions for his son, whom he wanted to become a gentleman. One way for a commoner to do this was to reach officer status in the military, which is what James Holman did.

Holman entered the navy at the age of thirteen and worked his way up to lieutenant. The hours spent on night watch on his ship’s deck in the cold and the rain took their toll on the seaman, and he contracted an eye disorder that caused him to go blind. Several doctors tried many different remedies, but none were successful.

Unable to continue with his duties, Holman became one of the Naval Knights of Windsor, where he was entitled to part of his officer’s pay in exchange for fulfilling the duty of the knighthood. There were not many obligations in the order—attend chapel twice a day was about all, and Holman grew restless. He took leave to study literature and medicine at the University of Edinburgh and then decided it was time to see the world.

Holman wanted to circumnavigate the world and write about his travels. At that point in history, very few people, if any, traveled around the globe for pleasure. Roberts writes that “there were people whose careers had carried them around the world—sailors, merchants, diplomats, missionaries, and a handful of naturalists,” but no one had done it just for pleasure, certainly not someone who was blind. That no one before him had done it did not phase Holman, and he set off on his journey. He planned to travel overland through Russia to the Pacific Ocean, where he would get on a boat and travel to the West Coast of North America and then down around South America. It was an ambitious plan that did not quite turn out the way Holman had hoped.

He made it as far as Siberia, fighting through difficult weather conditions and through mechanical failures, but once he made it to Siberia, the Tsar did not allow him to continue. In fact, Holman was abruptly taken prisoner one day and very quickly (as quickly as one could travel over land the length of Russia during the winter) carried to the border with Poland and dumped unceremoniously. The author speculates that the tsar did not want anyone to report to the rest of Europe on the Russian settlements that were multiplying in North America.

Holman was discouraged, but his desire to travel did not wane. As soon as he returned to England, he published his memoir of the trip and began mapping out his next adventure. He went to Africa next, then the Amazon, South Africa, Calcutta, Guangzhou and a host of other places.

Holman’s success as a traveler was due not to great financial means, but rather because he was so determined to do it. Early on in his travels, Holman learned that by becoming a good listener, he could make friends with just about anyone. This ability, combined with the fact that he was an officer (and a gentleman), opened many doors for Holman as he traveled to the ends of the earth.

Roberts intersperses Holman’s story with anecdotes and descriptions of how blind people experience the world through touch and hearing. He says they survey their surroundings more slowly than people who use their eyes, but they also get a richer picture using the other senses. Roberts also mentions how people have a tendency to associate a lack of sight with an impairment of other mental abilities, a false association. The reader gets an idea of some of the challenges someone with a visual impairment faced not only in the 19th century, but today as well. Overall, the book is well-written and the story is an intriguing one, especially for someone who aspires to travel to many places.

[Thanks to Cory Klatik for the book recommendation.]