from the Introduction, entitled “The World and Its Multiplying Delights”):
Until the invention of the internal combustion engine, the most prolific traveler in history was also the most unlikely. Born in 1786, James Holman was in many ways the quintessential world explorer: a dashing mix of discipline, recklessness, and accomplishment, a Knight of Windsor, Fellow of the Royal Society, and bestselling author. It was easy to forget that he was intermittently crippled, and permanently blind.
He journeyed alone. He entered each country not knowing a single word of the local language. He had only enough money to travel in native fashion, in public carriages and peasant carts, on horseback and on foot. Yet “he traversed the great globe itself more thoroughly than any other traveler that ever existed,” as one journalist of the time put it, “and surveyed its manifold parts as perfectly as, if not more than, the most intelligent and clear-sighted of his predecessors.”
In an era when the bind were routinely warehoused in asylums, Holman could be found studying medicine in Edinburgh, fighting the slave trade in Africa (where the Holman River) was named in his honor), hunting rogue elephants in Ceylon, and surviving a frozen captivity in Siberia. He helped unlock the puzzle of Equatorial Guinea’s indigenous language, averting bloodshed in the process. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin cites him as an authority on the fauna of the Indian Ocean. In his commentary on the The Arabian Nights, Sir Richard Francis Burton (who spent years following in his footsteps) pays tribute to both the man and his fame by referring to him not by name, but simply as the Blind Traveller.
* * *
James Holman was justly hailed as “one of the greatest wonders of the world he so sagaciously explored.” But astounding as his exploits were, a further astonishment is how quickly he was forgotten. The public’s embrace, driven more by novelty than genuine respect, did not endure. Critics dismissed his literary and scientific ambitions as “something incongruous and approaching the absurd.” One bitter enemy, another professional adventurer whose expedition was eclipsed by Holman’s, leveled a charge that took root in public perception: his sightlessness made genuine insight impossible. He might have been in Zanzibar, but how could the Blind Traveler claim to know Zanzibar? He was rarely doubted—his firsthand facts were unassailably accurate—but he was increasingly ignored.
The fame diminished, and curdled into ridicule, but Holman didn’t slow down in the slightest. Impoverished,increasingly threadbare, and still in debilitating health, he kept to his solo travels, even as his works fell out of print and his new writings went unpublished. He few steadfast admirers lost track of him, presuming him dead in some distant corner of the globe. His true end came suddenly, in a scandalously unlikely corner of London, interrupting both his fervent work and plans for further voyages.
Holman dreamed that future generations might appreciate his life’s work, but they weren’t given the chance. His eclectic collection of artifacts was scattered and discarded, his manuscripts destroyed or lost. If he could be said to have a monument at it, it was a brief biographical sketch in the Encyclopedia Britannica, an entry that dwindled in subsequent enditions. By 1910, it was a single paragraph. By 1960, it had disappeared altogether.
(from A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts. all rights reserved)
How about a taste of John Curless’ impeccable narration in the audiobook version, courtesy of Clipper Media and Audible.com? In my opinion, his bronze-toned British accent is perfectly suited to both the subject and the time, in my opinion. Click here to launch the preview page, then click on the little green arrow next to “Sample”.