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, writes Roberts, 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)