I didn’t set out to write this book. I set out to read it. After my first, brief encounter with James Holman (in the pages of Eccentric Travelers, by the Scottish author John Keay), I sought out the “H” shelves in the biography aisle of my local library. Two weeks later I was sitting in a research carrel in the University of California’s Bancroft Library, shaking my head in sad amazement. Not only had such a book never been written, the paltry nature of Holman studies seemed to imply that it never could be written. William Jerden’s 1866 reminiscence ends with the lamentation that much of Holman’s work was already lost. The last scholarly inquiries, as far as I could tell, had ended in frustration around 1890.
So why did I persist in piecing together the life of the Blind Traveler? Because my search had already introduced me to some of Holman’s original writings. And his voice-lively, worldly but far from world-weary-spurred me on:
I may ask, who could endure life without a purpose, without the pursuit of some object, in the attainment of which his moral energies should be called into healthful activity? I can confidently assert that the effort of traveling has been beneficial to me in every way.
He was right: “the pursuit of some object” has its own rewards, independent of outcome. I plunged ahead, traveling to England in the faith that further documents would come to light, which they did.
I found the complete records of Holman’s legal battles quite by accident, when I used the wrong terminal to make an inquiry at the British National Archives. The archivists at Windsor Castle handed me an unpublished book-length manuscript on the Naval Knights. I had another breakthrough when I stopped searching for “Holman, James” in old publications, since more than a few articles referred to him only as Mr. Holman (or Holeman), or even just generically as The Blind Traveler. And in the library of the Linnaean Society in London, I found the sole surviving catalog of his wanderings, an invaluable discovery that illuminated his last years of travels.
But some of the most interesting aspects of his story hadn’t been documented anywhere. That Holman had moved into John Keats’ last address shortly after the poet’s death, that their mutual doctor would go on to serve Queen Victoria, and one of Victoria’s first acts was to pardon Holman–these were connections I had to make on my own. No one had bothered to trace Holman’s influence on Charles Darwin, or Sir Richard Francis Burton. But the evidence was there, in Darwin’s and Burton’s own texts.
As the book began to take shape, I developed a clearer picture of the unique challenges it presented. For one, employing literary license–such as recreating dialogue or inventing small details to liven up a scene–seemed patently out of the question. Holman was already an improbable enough figure. I didn’t want to introduce any doubts as to the authenticity of things in the reader’s mind.
Another constraint was the vagueness of the historical record, particularly when it came to building an accurate sensory picture of a particular place and time. It wasn’t hard to learn, for example, that plantations took root in Ceylon in the 1820s. But what, specifically, had been planted there by the time of Holman’s visit? Questions like these were far more difficult to determine.
Also fighting against me was the fact that Holman used very few nonvisual discriptions in his own accounts–he wanted people to forget he was blind, and writing at length about scents, sounds and sensations would have served as a reminder of that. So I often had to recreate the nonvisual world myself. When I describe his journey into the interior of Fernando Po, I’m using the ship’s log (which recorded the recent rains), entries relevant to botany (from which I understood the fragrances he encountered), and an ornithological history of the region (for birdsongs).
What did I not include in the book? For one, I chose not to dwell too much on Holman’s other condition, his debilitating pain of motion, because there was little light I could shed on that subject. He was very circumspect. Often his travels come to a screeching halt for several days, which he typically explains only as “In consequence of having been confined to my bed by severe indisposition.” If he does elaborate, it’s only to reassert his unshakeable optimism, with statements like this one: “Indeed, my enjoyment was marred by illness, but that was merely the bitter, which a wise Providence mingles in the cup of life.”
In truth, on the morning of his departure for Fernando Po on the H.M.S. Eden, he was unable to walk to the boat. He’d been bedridden for several days, and had fully expected to lose his place on the expedition because of it. But its leader was willing to turn a blind eye, “and ill as I was I saved my distance by hastening in a coach to the waterside, where Captain Owen had kindly provided a boat for my reception.” And, of course, Holman was rising from his sickbed not only to sail to unknown Africa, but to launch a circumnavigation of the world.
When it came to that circumnavigation, there was much territory that I ultimately chose to pass over at a rapid clip. What he devotes three volumes to in A Voyage Round the World is distilled, in A Sense of the World, to only a few chapters. In some cases, I skipped interesting incidents because I felt I couldn’t put them in the proper historical perspective without bogging down the narrative. For instance, Holman rather daringly took part in some public protests in China. But to fully explain what he was protesting-essentially, the rule that forbade Western merchants from having wives in residence-would have required a lengthy discussion of trade imbalances, tariff regulations and the burgeoning Opium Wars. I chose to leave that particular adventure to be discovered in the pages of the original text.
There are aspects of Holman’s life that, despite my best efforts, remain unilluminated. The whereabouts of his manuscripts, for one, but also the mystery of his family. In his last will and testament he gives the bulk of his estate to his cousin Andrew Holman, but he specifically bequeaths nothing to his closest relations, his brothers. “Such omission is intentional,” he states. “I declare that I do not feel that any of them have given me cause to make any disposition or dispositions in their favor.” For a generous-spirited man such as Holman, this seems to hint at a deep rift between the brothers, one that went unhealed in the ten years between the will’s drafting and its execution.
I raise open questions like these for the same reason I hint at Holman’s further adventures: to entice future scholars into picking up where I left off. While A Sense of the World may be the first book about James Holman, it’s my fervent wish that it not be the last. There’s more mileage in the Blind Traveler yet.