Aug 24th 2006
From The Economist print edition
A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler
By Jason Roberts
HarperCollins; 400 pages; $26.95.
Simon & Schuster; �12.99
Buy it at
LIEUTENANT James Holman was already a remarkably good naval officer
when he went blind in 1811, at the age of 25. What he did after that
was extraordinary. In an age when blindness usually meant a life of
passive gratitude at best, and beggary at worst, Holman became an
international traveller. He journeyed alone, with very little money,
trusting to his natural gift for friendship.
Holman observed acutely what he found, by ear, touch and smell. Using
a clever device, a noctograph (carbon paper on a rigid wooden frame),
he wrote it down. His descriptive powers were so good that, at the
height of his fame, he was Britain's best-known travel writer. Holman
journeyed across Russia to Siberia and back, visiting Africa, India,
China, Australia and Latin America and a lot of Europe too. Locomotion
was by sailing ship, horse and foot�and by those means he covered
250,000 miles (400,000km), according to Jason Roberts, who has
unearthed his story.
The author paints a convincing and well-researched picture of Holman's
early life as an apothecary's son in Exeter, his stellar naval career,
his growing ill-health, and the bleak prospects that awaited him as
his vision dimmed. The descriptions of the gruesome medical treatments
then available for disorders of the eye are stomach-turning.
He also pieces together the details of Holman's travels, using his
published works and the observations of others. Holman's first long
trip, to Russia, is particularly well drawn: disgusting meals,
bureaucratic barriers and a charming English widow in Irkutsk, a town
boiling with money in a way that is reminiscent of Russia today. He
makes an interesting link between Holman's trick of banging a stick to
gain an aural picture of his location and other similar techniques
being developed to help people use their ears as their eyes.
What Mr Roberts does not manage to do is portray his subject
completely convincingly. He says, frequently, that Holman was a
charming conversationalist, an able linguist, a great ladies' man,
resourceful and uncomplaining. But what of the vices? Was Holman,
perhaps, a bit garrulous? Or self-important? That would certainly help
explain the remarkable eclipse of his career in later life.
Some of this, no doubt, can be ascribed to prejudice, and to jealousy.
Mr Roberts makes a lot of that, perhaps too much. What seems atrocious
now, of course, was the way of the world then. But the end result, for
all the excellent detective work and atmospherics, is a touch
unsatisfying. Disabled people may be heroes, but they are not
Thursday, August 31, 2006