About two-hundred years ago, during the golden age of the British Empire and exploration, there lived a man named James Holman. Holman was born into the new English merchant class; his father was a pharmacist. During those days, there were not many options for young men. Clergy, or to become a soldier. Holman became a soldier, enlisting at a very early age (12) to work in His Majesty’s Navy.
Holman was set for a normal, uneventful life, working his way up in the navy until if lucky he would captain his own ship. But James Holman was struck down by a debilitating illness. It is still unclear what the illness was, some sort of arthritis causing tremendous joint paint. But he was returned from his posting in Canada to convalesce in Bath. He didn’t really get better, instead he was hit by some sort of degeneration in his eyes leading to blindness. He underwent all the bizarre treatments of those years; including bleeding and the like, but with no improvement.
Holman’s eyesight never returned. However, he was somehow able to gain some sort of relief from his constant paint through travel. It could be that today he would have a better diagnosis (or maybe not), but back then it was all a mystery. So Holman took to travel; not luxury travel, he was living on a half-salary from the navy as he ‘recovered’, so he traveled in poverty, like a peasant. Thumbing rides on the back of carts, getting a lift from a friendly captain, borrowing horses. He crossed Europe and through Russia making it almost to the Pacific; he traveled to what is now Malabo (Equatorial Guinea); he went to Brasilia and Australia and West to East in the USA. Two hundred years ago, and blind, this was a true feat. Even more remarkable, he wrote about it. He became one of the first travel writers, the most unlikely.
This book was well written, shining a light onto the life of a man, an Englishman, who was not rich or influential and who in fact was extremely unwell but who nevertheless found a way to pursue that which he thought was important. To learn about other people, other places, and write about it. James Holman has been mostly forgotten by history, his writings were set aside in favor of others as English colonial furor waxed. But he lived, he overcame, and he did so with tremendous good cheer. And that is really something.