Book Review – A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler

While I tend toward fiction in my book choices, I can’t resist an interesting biography. Some time ago, I picked up A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts.

‘Hmmm,’ you think. ‘Why have I never heard of this person who is supposed to be History’s Greatest Traveler?’

What I discovered in the biography by Roberts is that James Holman is one of those seemingly rare, yet interesting, people who became famous in their own time, then die and disappear into obscurity. Holman lived from 1786-1857 – a time when his blindness and near-crippling arthritis should have kept him confined. He rebelled against this, and set out multiple times to travel the world, covering a quarter million miles as he traveled the world. And not only did he travel all over the world, he mostly did it alone. He crossed Siberia, hunted elephants, and helped chart the Australian Outback. The Holman River in Africa is named in his honor. Charles Darwin cited him as an authority on the fauna of the Indian Ocean. Yet I’d never heard of him until this biography.

Roberts does a good job of allowing Holman’s person and adventures to tell the story, which doesn’t disappoint. Robert Madden, a physician who happened to travel with Holman at one point, had this to say about Holman’s visit to an active volcano.

“The great eruption of June, 1821 was witnessed by me. I accompanied to the mount the celebrated blind traveler, Lieutenant Holman, the evening of which the violence was at its greatest height… He insisted on walking over places where we could hear the crackling effects of the fire on the lava beneath our feet, and on a level with the brim of the new crater, which was then pouring forth showers of fire and smoke, and lava, and occasionally masses of rock of amazing dimensions, to an enormous height in the air…”

And this is only one of Holman’s many adventures circumnavigating the globe. For anyone who loves interesting biographies and fascinating people, I highly recommend this book.


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