A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler

A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler

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by Jason Roberts, Stina Nielsen

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He was known simply as the Blind Traveler — a solitary, sightless adventurer who, astonishingly, fought the slave trade in Africa, survived a frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon, and helped chart the Australian outback. James Holman (1786-1857) became "one of the greatest wonders of the world he so sagaciously explored," triumphing


He was known simply as the Blind Traveler — a solitary, sightless adventurer who, astonishingly, fought the slave trade in Africa, survived a frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon, and helped chart the Australian outback. James Holman (1786-1857) became "one of the greatest wonders of the world he so sagaciously explored," triumphing not only over blindness but crippling pain, poverty, and the interference of well-meaning authorities (his greatest feat, a circumnavigation of the globe, had to be launched in secret). Once a celebrity, a bestselling author, and an inspiration to Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the charismatic, witty Holman outlived his fame, dying in an obscurity that has endured — until now.

A Sense of the World is a spellbinding and moving rediscovery of one of history's most epic lives. Drawing on meticulous research, Jason Roberts ushers us into the Blind Traveler's uniquely vivid sensory realm, then sweeps us away on an extraordinary journey across the known world during the Age of Exploration. Rich with suspense, humor, international intrigue, and unforgettable characters, this is a story to awaken our own senses of awe and wonder.

Editorial Reviews

Rachel Hartigan Shea
Roberts's vibrant prose and meticulous recreation of Holman's world offer modern readers a chance to see what Holman saw as he tapped his way around the globe.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this vibrant biography of James Holman (1786-1857), Roberts, a contributor to the Village Voice and McSweeney's, narrates the life of a 19th-century British naval officer who was mysteriously blinded at 25, but nevertheless became the greatest traveler of his time. Holman entered the navy at age 12, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. When blindness overcame him, Holman was an accomplished sailor, and he engineered to join the Naval Knights of Windsor, a quirky group who only had to live in quarters near Windsor Castle and attend mass for their stipend. For many blind people at the time, this would have been the start of a long (if safe) march to the grave. Holman would have none of it and spent the bulk of his life arranging leaves of absence from the Knights in order to wander the world (without assistance) from Paris to Canton; study medicine at the University of Edinburgh; hunt slavers off the coast of Africa; get arrested by one of the czar's elite bodyguards in Siberia; and publish several bestselling travel memoirs. Roberts does Holman justice, evoking with grace and wit the tale of this man once lionized as "The Blind Traveler." (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In his first book of narrative nonfiction, freelance writer Roberts (McSweeney's) tells the story of James Holman, who enjoyed a brief period of fame in the early 19th century as the "Blind Traveler." After serving in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars, he was blinded at age 25 by a mysterious illness. What Holman decided to do with his life after losing his sight was amazing and inspiring: he became a world traveler and author, going as far afield as West Africa, Ceylon, and Siberia; his best-selling books were known to such figures as Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Francis Burton. In time, Holman's fame was eclipsed by the efforts of jealous rivals, who mocked the thought of a blind travel writer. By his death, his works were no longer in print, and he had been largely forgotten by a public who had perhaps only ever seen him as a novelty. Holman's accomplishments deserve Roberts's labor of love, a well-written popular history that will appeal to an audience interested in stories of individuals triumphing over physical difficulties. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Robert J. Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-An engaging account of a most undeservedly obscure figure. The book itself is a fortuitous happenstance; had a certain volume not caught Roberts's eye during a "wander break" through the stacks on a library visit, the story of Lieutenant James Holman, known to his contemporaries as the Blind Traveler, might still be lost to a modern audience. Born in 1786, Holman began service in the British navy at the age of 12. The rigorous lifestyle ravaged him physically; by age 20, pain had left him nearly incapacitated; five years later, he was blind, ill, and strapped for funds. Holman pursued a course-travel-that proved the best remedy. The Blind Traveler traversed the globe, encountering a plethora of colorful characters and gaining short-lived fame, if not fortune, from his narratives and memoirs. Roberts re-creates each journey, both geographical and physiological, providing insights into 18th-century beliefs, mores, and worldly knowledge, along with a ghastly array of "cures" inflicted on Holman by practitioners of medicine. The admiration and respect that the author feels for his subject are unmistakable, but in no way diminish the accomplishments of "the most restless man in history." Black-and-white reproductions show Holman as he was depicted by contemporaries during his travels. This volume is an obvious addition to any number of booklists, from biographies to "nonfiction that reads like fiction."-Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From newcomer Roberts, the first and very welcome, full-scale biography of a great, early-19th-century world voyager who also happened to be blind. James Holman (1787-1857) was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy when he inexplicably lost his eyesight. He was fortunate to be admitted to England's Naval Knights, a sanctuary at Windsor Castle. With his half-pension from the navy and the small financial benefit of being a knight, he made £84 a year (at a time when a government clerk earned £600). But as Roberts, a smooth, thoughtful writer, so ably chronicles, Holman was not about to let the business of life pass him by. He wanted to travel, even on a shoestring. Though sightless, Holman was a wizard at haptic perception, or touch-based understanding. "Where vision gulps, tactility sips successively over time," observes Roberts. There is no doubt, however, that Holman took great draughts of sensory input, which coalesced into well-honed senses of place. His feet were rheumatic, but they itched. His first journey was a Grand Tour-style circuit of Western Europe, resulting in a well-received book about his adventure. Then it was off to Russia, crossing to Siberia in a cart with a Tartar postilion, shadowed by police, through the "path-swallowing marshlands known as the Baraba Steppe." Next stop was the African island of Fernando Po, where Holman worked to thwart the slave trade. Both of those travels also sold well as narratives. On he fared to Brazil, Zanzibar, New Zealand, Ceylon and the Levant, for three or five or six years, returning with reports of soy sauce, kangaroo-hunting, wall-plastering in the Indian fashion. The extent of his lifetime travels probably amounted to 250,000 miles, writesRoberts, who himself deserves readers' admiration for not only making each step a pleasure to read, but for opening our eyes to so remarkably forgotten an individual. A polished and entertaining account of an astonishing wayfarer. (20 b&w illustrations)
The Spectator
“Roberts’s book is an excellent read.… An author with an enviable ability to tell the tale.
The Economist
“Paints a convincing and well-researched picture of Holman’s early life…Holman’s first trip, to Russia, is particularly well-drawn.”
Melbourne Herald Sun
“Roberts wisely tells this extraordinary story without embellishment. The tale will fill you with wonder. In a word: remarkable.”
Time magazine
“Enthralling...inspiring A moving, mesmerizing biography.”
Bath Chronicle (UK)
“A tribute to an inspiring figure who, despite his blindness, was a far-sighted traveller.”
Contra Costa Times
“Holman’s remarkable life story, coupled with Roberts’ extraordinary gifts as a storyteller, make this a fascinating read.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Jason Roberts should be proud of his achievement in this sensitive and imaginative book.”
Weekend Australian
“Fascinating...rich...I don’t expect to read a better [book] soon.”
Seattle Times
“Roberts is a beautifully assured writer.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Enthralling. A masterpiece of biography, travel writing and medical journalism.”
NPR's Holiday Book Roundup
“Holman’s life as told in this biography reads like a dare to get out of the house and live!”
Buffalo News
“Extraordinary…beautifully produced…Roberts made his hero one for the history books.”
Daily News
“Through meticulous research…with intrigue and humor, Roberts brings Holman fully to life.”
Washington Post
“Vibrant prose.”
Denver Rocky Mountain News
“Roberts has achieved much. His research is meticulous and…a person lost to history is now rediscovered.”
Miami Herald
“(A) meticulous recreation of Holman’s world.”
New York Times
“Gives us a man who embraced wanderlust at a time when the continents and oceans were much, much bigger.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“A remarkable job of resurrecting Holman from obscurity, painting a portrait of a complex and compelling persona.”
The Guardian
“This warm-hearted and sensitive account should give Holman his due: a place in the pantheon of great travelers.”
Irish Times
“Painstakingly researched. Worth reading.”
Daily Telegraph (London)
“An imaginative journey (told with) enviable tact and skill.”
ABC Magazine (UK)
“This excellent biography owes much to the wonderful balance the author achieves between detail and evocative description.”
Raleigh News & Observer
“(a) talented and committed writer.”
Boston Globe
“An admirable work, testament to the determination, resourcefulness, and skill of not only its subject, but also its author.”
Time Magazine
"Enthralling...inspiring A moving, mesmerizing biography."
Time Magazines Literary Supplement (London)
"Jason Roberts should be proud of his achievement in this sensitive and imaginative book."
Holiday Book Roundup - NPR
"Holman’s life as told in this biography reads like a dare to get out of the house and live!"
(UK) - ABC Magazine
"This excellent biography owes much to the wonderful balance the author achieves between detail and evocative description."

Product Details

Recorded Books, LLC
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

A Sense of the World

How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler
By Jason Roberts

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Jason Roberts
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0007161069

Chapter One

The Child in the Compass

James Holman was unequivocal about his first and deepest dream. "I have been conscious from my earliest youth of the existence of this desire to explore distant regions," he would recall, "to trace the variety exhibited by mankind under different influences of different climates, customs and law."

The genesis of such a dream can be readily understood. It arose from his childhood universe, from the engine of all his family's ambitions. An apothecary shop.

If you wished to voyage the world in a mindflight instant, you needed only to step into the Exeter establishment of John Holman, Chymist & Surgeon, close your eyes, and breathe deep the mingled scents of all known continents. It was an apothecary in the very latest mercantile fashion, selling not only medicinal products but just about anything that could be powdered, dried, or otherwise prepared for transport from afar. Cayenne pepper and soy from India, tapioca from the West Indies, Arabian cashews, Brazilian cocoa and coffee, Cathay tea, Spanish capers, even Italian macaroni -- those were only the foodstuffs, arrayed in open barrels and bins, on offer by the pound, ounce, orpinch. Behind the counter, in Latin-labeled glass and earthenware jars, were the essentials for compounding prescriptions in legal accordance with the London Pharmacopoeia, fragrant esoterics like galbanum from Persia and myrrh from northern Africa. It was not the cheapest apothecary in town -- the store's public notices were frankly addressed "to Nobility, Gentry, and others" -- but that was no impediment to a healthy tide of trade.

Young James, born on the premises and raised underfoot, was the fourth of six boys, but the first Holman son to know no home but the shop, which had opened in 1779. He knew intimately the rarity and provenance of each item. And for a reinforcing sense of the wideness of the world, he had only to look out the window.

Exeter, a metropolis of fifteen thousand in southwestern En-gland, was second only to London as the nation's busiest inland port, and almost all offloaded cargo flowed overland within sight of the storefront. Fittingly, Exeter had grown in the rough plan of a compass, with the centuries-old city walls pierced by four cardinal-pointed main streets: North, South, Fore, and High. Holman's apothecary owed much of its success to a literally central location, at the crossroads formed by the four streets' convergence.

For the young and adventurous-minded, the city was full of further inspirations. The nearby cathedral held the famous "Exeter Elephant," delighting and intriguing children since the thirteenth century. It was (and remains) a choir stall with a fantastical rendition of an elephant, complete with webbed feet and an extra set of ears, carved by a medieval woodworker who had clearly never seen one. Off the cathedral green was the Ship Inn, looking as it had in Elizabethan days when it served as Sir Walter Raleigh's informal headquarters. Nearby was Mol's Coffee House, equally ancient and unchanged, the preferred haunt of Sir Francis Drake. Both mariners were proudly claimed as native sons of Devonshire (of which Exeter was the capital), and as progenitors of Exeter's secretive and powerful Guild of Merchant Adventurers, which by 1588 was trading as far afield as Senegal.

A little farther down South Street were the Quayside docks, the terminus of England's first artificial shipping canal, where in 1714 a visiting Daniel Defoe had marveled at how "the ships come now quite up to the city, and there with ease both deliver and take in their lading." Woolen cloth was a regional specialty, and the docks were particularly convenient for textile merchants, who saved on warehousing by building their weaving houses within a few yards of the water, loading bolts into holds as soon as they emerged from the loom. Much of the British Army marched in uniforms of sturdy Exeter serge, as did the armies of Holland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain.

But by James's youth, the international bustle of the Quayside was unmistakably on the wane. England was at war against France -- had been since 1790, when he was three -- and the spreading scope of the conflict had choked off many foreign markets. Even sailing to other English ports, via the shipping canal and the English Channel, was a risk that only a diminishing number of shipowners chose to run.

The taverns on South Street were filling with merchant sailors, hoping to wait out the war. As a commercial inland port, Exeter was an easier place to remain a civilian than coastal naval ports like Plymouth or Portsmouth, where roving press gangs were forcing men into His Majesty George III's service. The Quayside's idled sailors had little to do but bide their time, and revisit past adventures. To an open-eyed child, growing up in the center of the civic compass, it wasn't difficult to hear their tales, and fill with wonder.

Wonder, not hope. The sons of the apothecary had been assigned carefully interlocking destinies. One Holman boy was indeed being readied for an intrepid, seafaring life. But it wasn't James.

After achieving a solid and public prosperity, John Holman had tried his hand at importance. He kept a large phaeton carriage, a status-symbol vehicle, and ran successfully for a seat on the Exeter city council. But as he was soon forced to acknowledge, these constituted the boundaries of his own upward mobility. A "Chymist & Druggist," or "Surgeon and Apothecary, of genteel Practice," as he variously advertised himself in the Exeter Flying Post, could be successful, even prominent. But he could not be a gentleman.

In the eighteenth century, the term gentleman conveyed not just good manners and politeness, but a very real social status. A gentleman did not require a title, a noble ancestry, or even much money, but he did need to be beyond the indignity of working with his hands. Even surgeons were regularly excluded from polite society, on the grounds that they performed a manual skill and were therefore servile. John Holman had . . .


Excerpted from A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts Copyright © 2006 by Jason Roberts. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jason Roberts is the inaugural winner of the Van Zorn Prize for emerging writers (sponsored by Michael Chabon) and a contributor to the Village Voice, McSweeney's, The Believer, and other publications. He lives in Northern California.

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Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler (P.S. Series) 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
airartist More than 1 year ago
Jason Roberts takes a providential find in an obscure library book and takes us thru a well-researched and eye-opening tour of the world that existed during the early 19th Century. Like the main character, the story is very well-paced and enlightening. Surprisingly, for a world tour, geography is not the main focus. Instead, we are introduced to the cultures and lifestyles that populated a mostly unknown planet. A planet not yet crossed by steam or rail, but instead wind, hooves, and feet. James Holman comes to life as a determined and eternally optomistic personality--refusing to be sidelined by any hardship. He blazes a trail around the globe, refusing to be put off by illness, politics, or budget. He also treads thru the world as few visually-impaired ever had--developing his own techniques decades before formal schools for the blind were created. He literally becomes a citizen of the world embracing each new culture and personality he meets. Holman was also gifted enough to share his travels thru writing and story telling. Jason Roberts is equally gifted and vividly brings Holman and the time period back to life and takes us all on one more tour of the world. After this trip, let's hope we all see the world better with our feet.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is on my short list of the best books I¿ve read this year that clearly fulfills the contract with the reader. A Sense of the World, by Jason Roberts, a good yarn about a likeable protagonist, disagreeable antagonists not easily disposed of, and a continuous struggle to overcome impossible odds. A book in which the narrative flows so smoothly, the scholarly research is all but invisible.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Slow but satisfying journey of a book with an extraordinary man, James Holman. He was a remarkable person of courage, curiousity and perseverance, and not one scintilla of self-pity. Glad I 'met' and traveled a while with him. Great biography!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Roberts is a superb writer. _A Sense of the World_ flows easily, and is a very enjoyable read. Above all, I'm delighted that Roberts has brought to life the story of an extraordinary man who might otherwise have been lost to history. James Holman's journey is inspirational, intriguing, and should not be missed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was browsing through books a couple of weeks ago in my local bookstore and came across this title. I had never heard of the author but the subject matter of a blind man traveling the world during a time when there was practically no consideration for people with physical disabilities was very interesting. I bought the book and it has become one of my favorite books of all time. It was very well written and extremely entertaining. The best part was that it was all true! Reading this book made me wish I could have met James Holman. You would definitely be doing yourself a favor by reading this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
turtleteacher More than 1 year ago
This book really surprised me. I expected a story about a blind man who did a few things. He was another Marco Polo. I really enjoyed this book. There is a lot of history in this book. Enjoy
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago