It seems to strain belief: that a blind man, venturing alone in the early 19th Century, could become the most prolific traveler of all time. Holman himself was too modest to make such a claim, at least in any statements that survive. The first true assessment of his historic role came in 1866, when the journalist William Jerdan asserted that “From Marco Polo to Mungo Park, no three of the most famous travelers, grouped together, would exceed the extent and variety of countries traversed by our blind countryman.”
Nevertheless, Jerdan’s statement was uniformly ignored–Holman’s fade from public consciousness was already well underway. I was, myself, initially inclined to treat the claim as a bit of nostalgic hyperbole; Jerdan had been a friend of Holman, and was in his eighties at the time. But in the library of the Linnaean Society in London, I discovered Volume 3 of Zoology, the society’s official journal of proceedings, published in 1859. Four pages of the journal are consumed by a single run-on paragraph, one that attempts to catalog the bulk of the Blind Traveler’s wanderings. This is most, but not all, of that paragraph:
“In 1812, having become permanently blind, he was made a Naval Knight of Windsor. During the next seven years he devoted so much time to the study of literature (entering at the University of Edinburgh, where he obtained a diploma), that his health suffered severely, and he was compelled to seek restoration in the air of his native county. Not finding the benefit he expected, this, together, with the permission he had obtained to absent himself from Windsor, induced him, in the year 1819, to visit the South of France alone, and without any knowledge of the continental languages. He then made the grand tour, passing through the south of France into Italy, traversing the greater part of both the southern and northern states of that peninsula, crossing into Savoy by Mount Cenis, proceeding thence by Chambery to Geneva, and through Switzerland to Basle, descending the Rhine to the sea, and from Antwerp to Brussels, returning to England, by Ostend, in September 1821. An account of these travels was published by him in 1822, under the title of “A Narrative of a Journey undertaken in the years 1819, 1829, and 1821, through France, Italy, Savoy,” &c. &c. In July 1822, he embarked alone from the London Docks for St. Petersburg, and had proceeded through Russia into Siberia, traversing it as far as Irkoutsk (2000 miles beyond Tobolsk), intending to embark at Kamtschatka for Sitka on the northwest coast of America, and then to proceed to the Sandwich Islands, &c., when his progress was checked by a mandate from the Emperor of Russia, under which he was conveyed as a state prisoner to the confines of Cracow, and there dismissed. The motive for this proceeding was said to be the belief that he was an English spy and that his blindness was only feigned. He then proceeded through Austria, Bohemia, Saxony, Prussia, and Hanover to Hamburgh, and arrived at Hull in June 1824. In July 1827 he proceeded with Captain Owen of H.M.S. Eden to South Africa, visiting by the way Madeira, Teneriffe, St. Jago, Sierra Leone, Cape Coast, Accra, Fernando Po, Bonny, Calabar, &c., Prince’s Island and Ascension; after leaving which island, falling in with a Dutch galliot on its way to Rio de Janeiro, he transferred himself and luggage to that vessel. From Rio he visited the gold mines, and after journeying through the Brazils, quitted S. America for the Cape of Good Hope in H.M. Brig Falcon, Captain Pole, and after traversing the Cape Colony and part of Caffreland, left Simon’s Bay for Mauritius, Madagascar, the Comoro Islands, Zanzibar, and the Seychelles, returning thence to Mauritius. He then proceeded to Columbo, and having travelled through Kandy and made the ascent of Adam’s Peak, embarked at Trincomalee for Pondicherry and Madras, from which he sailed for Masulipatam and Calcutta. In August 1830, he left that city for China, visiting Penang, Malacca, Singapore, and Canton, whence he sailed for Hobart Town. He next traversed Van Diemen’s Land, proceded to Sydney, and after traveling in the interior of Australia, left for England, visiting on his way home New Zealand, Bahia and Flores, and arriving in August 1832. The narrative of these travels was published in four volumes in 1834 and 1835, under the title of “A Voyage round the World.” In August 1836, he proceeded to the north of Ireland, where he remained during the next three months. He paid a short visit to the Channel Islands, St. Malo, and Diamant in the summer of 1839. In the latter part of 1840 he embarked at Blackwall for Falmouth and Oporto, landed there, and visited the following places in succession, viz. the Alto-Douro, Lanego, Oporto, Lisbon, (visiting St. Ubes, the salt pans of Rio Lado, Cintra, Colares, and the English lines), Cadiz, Seville, Port St. Mary, and Xeres, Gibraltar, Ceuta, Malaga, Granada, Almeria, Carthagena, Alicante, Valencia, Barcelona, and Tarragona. From Barcelona he proceeded to Majorca, Minorca, Algiers, Bona, Tunis, and Carthage; thence to Malta, the Ionian Islands, Patras, Athens, the island of Syra, Smyrna, Rhodes, Beyrout, and Alexandra; from thence to Cairo, Suez, Moses’ Wells, &c. Then from Cairo he crossed the Desert, to Jerusalem by way of El Arish, then to Jordan, the Dead Sea, and Bethlehem; then from Jerusalem to Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Carmel, Acre, Tyre, Sidon, and Beyrout. From Beyrout he went to Tripoli, the island of Rhodes, Latakia, Sudea (on the Orontes); thence to Antioch, Aleppo, and Hamman, by the Desert, to Damascusm and across the Labanon and Anti-Lebanon back to Beyrout. This he left for Alexandria, Malta, and Naples, from the latter place making his way through Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily to Reggio, and thence back to Naples. He then proceeded through the Abruzzi to Pescara on the Adriatic, Loretto, Rimini, Ravenna, Ferrara, Padua, Venice, Udine, Goritz, and Trieste; thence to Fiume, Zara, Libenico, Nur, Seigu, Spalatio; by sea to Ragusa and Boca di Cataro, making a tour in Montenegro, and returning to Boca di Cataro and Ragusa, then voyaging to Stagno, crossing the Isthmus, thence through the Gulf of Narenta, up the little Narenta river, returning to Fort Opus and Metcavitch, and descending the main stream of the Narenta to the sea, along the coast to Spalatio, from thence going to Seigu, and entering Bosnia by Billibuch, passing to Zavena, Travnich, Kisslovoda and Sana, to the frontiers of Servia, thence to Belgrade, down the Danube to Guirgevo, Bucharest, and Ibrail, across the Sereth to Galatz, thence to Jassy and through the Bukpvina, Transylvania, and Hungary to Vienna. Then through Austria, Bavaria, and the Tyrol to Italty, visiting Verona, Lodi, Milan, Pavia, Genoa, and Nice; thence to Toulon, Marseilles, Avignon, Nismes, Montpelier, Cette, Perpignan, St. Louis, and the Pyrenees, Arriége, Bagnéres de Bigorre, Cauterets, Pau, and Bayonne. Thence into Spain by Vittoria to Vallalodid, visiting from thence Leon, thence to Madrid, Talaverna, Badajor, and into Portugal, visiting Elvas, Lisbon, Bucellas, Figuera, Cintra, Oporto, and Vigo, returning to Oporto by sea, thence by Corunna, Bilboa, and San Sebastian to Bayonne. Leaving Bayonne for Bordeaux, Saintes, Cognac, Charente, Rochfort, Rochelle, Bourbon-Vuedeé, Nantes, L’Orient, Brest, Morlaix, Dinaut, Avranches, Granville, Cherbourg, Caen, Havre, Rouen, Chateauroux, Limoges, Agen, Auch, Pau, Cauterets, Bagnéres de Bigorre, Toulouse, Lyons, Vichy, Moulins, Macon, and Chalons-sur-Saone to Dijon, Chalons-sur-Maine, Rheims, St. Quentin, Valenciennes, Lille, and Dunkirk to Calais and Boulogne, returning to England in October 1846, In the spring of 1852 he again embarked from Hull for Norway and Sweden; after traveling through which countries for a few months, he returned to England. Thus was the last journey he made, otherwise than by paying occasional visits to Boulogne and Bath.”
There are a few minor errors in this inventory-Holman was not with Captain Owen when he traveled through South Africa, and his experience with New Zealand was limited to sailing past a portion of its coast. But Zoology is a journal of serious scientific inquiry, and the anonymous author (such articles were typically uncredited) was clearly drawing, exhaustively, from a wealth of quite specific documentation about Holman, who was himself a fellow of the Linnean Society. It should be further noted that this does not account for any travel prior to blindness.
Sadly, this monolithic paragraph appears to be the only surviving record of much of Holman’s latter travels. There are many adventures implicit in lines like “Then from Cairo he crossed the Desert, to Jerusalem.” But as to the particulars, we can only guess.
The complete text of Holman’s A Voyage Round the World, Volume 1, is now available online. To read it, click here.
An encounter with Holman, in Samuel Carter Hall’s Retrospect of a Long Life: From 1815 to 1883.
A short sketch of Holman’s life, in Blindness and the Blind: or, A treatise on the science of typhology by William Hanks Levy (1872)
An obituary of Holman in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1857)