James Holman (1786-1857) was a Victorian-era adventurer and author. The first blind person to circumnavigate the globe, he holds the further distinction of being the most prolific traveler in history, sighted or unsighted, prior to the invention of modern transportation. A British naval lieutenant, Holman lost his eyesight at the age of 25 to rheumatic illness, contracted while serving in the War of 1812. Since the illness also left him in chronic pain, an act of royal charity awarded him a pension and permanent residency in Windsor Castle.
Expected to live as a cloistered invalid, Holman surprised the court by instead relocating to Edinburgh, where he became the first blind person known to attend medical school. In 1819 he began a lifelong pursuit of solitary travel, venturing unaccompanied through much of Europe and publishing an acclaimed memoir of his experiences. He remained almost constantly traveling, always solo, for the next four decades. When officials attempted to confine him to Windsor Castle–on the grounds that he was officially disabled–Queen Victoria’s own physician prescribed freedom, testifying that Holman’s still-painful condition responded best to “a continual change of scene and of climate,” and warning that inactivity would cause his death.
Holman traveled to all known continents. In Siberia he was accused of spying, imprisoned and exiled as an enemy of the Tsar. In Africa he participated in fighting the slave trade, helping to found what is now the nation of Equatorial Guinea (where the Holman River was named in his honor). Often greeted and celebrated simply as “the Blind Traveler,” he published five volumes of memoirs, and was famous enough upon his death in 1857 to warrant a multi-page entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Yet Holman descended into a posthumous obscurity; the Brittanica entry disappeared, as did his manuscripts and papers. No comprehensive study of James Holman emerged until 2006, when Jason Roberts published the award-winning biography A Sense of the World, subtitled How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler.