Autumn 2022 / Quest

Into the Shimmering Void

by Maud Rowell

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At 9 o’clock in the morning on July 29, 1827, the HMS Eden set sail from the southwestern coast of England, weighed down with so much gunmetal that she sat a full four inches lower in the water than usual. It was a pleasant, breezy day, and she was headed for a tiny West African island, to settle land and ambush slave ships leaving the mainland 24 miles away.

By evening the high seas were angry. A dark and furious Atlantic bucked beneath the ship like a wild horse, while thunder boomed overhead and lightning cracked the sky into jagged black pieces. On board, furniture flew about, crockery smashed, timbers creaked, and the 135-strong crew added their own voices to the cacophony. 

But far worse was yet to come. The Eden Mission would turn out to be the deadliest expedition in Royal Navy history, and only 12 of those on board would survive it.  

One of the Eden’s passengers — a tall man of 40 with a russet beard — lay below deck, unfazed by the chaos above. He had served in the Royal Navy himself and was accustomed to rough seas. He was also a seasoned traveler who’d traversed Siberia — a vast, desolate wasteland, pockmarked with salt and silver mines worked by convicts — and much of Europe, including a climb up a rumbling, sulfurous Mount Vesuvius on the brink of eruption. 

Though he was sympathetic to the Eden’s abolitionist mission, he was only aboard to hitch a ride. For West Africa would mark the starting point of his most ambitious journey yet — a complete circumnavigation of the globe, in which he would visit every inhabited continent. He would not be the first to accomplish this feat, but something set him apart from everyone else who’d attempted it. 

Retired Lieutenant James Holman was completely blind. 

~~

Nearly 200 years later, autumn’s come to Highgate Cemetery in mid-March, with long, warm blades of low-angle sunlight painting the scenery around me in sultry red and gold tones. Each star-shaped leaf in the tangled mass of ivy growing up the rows of headstones seems to hold a little cup of fire in its center. Were the sun not setting, there would be greenness all around me — but that color is barely perceptible now, suffused as the plants are with light like whiskey. 

This whole graveyard drips with celebrity as much as it does with sunset colors. Karl Marx is buried here, and Christina Rossetti, Douglas Adams, Michael Faraday — historical figures famous the world over.

But I’m not looking for somebody everybody knows.

After squeezing past a barrier, I find myself in a part of the cemetery where people thought to be of little significance are interred. I wander among heaped-up gardening supplies, then begin to climb back away from the road. When I find a sagging plastic bag, I push against its enormous flank, reaching out to run my fingertips over the grave concealed beneath it. 

“THE CELEBRATED BLIND TRAVELLER LIEUT JAMES HOLMAN” is what I feel carved into the bleached, stained stone.

Here, hidden away from the public, buried beneath plant waste and rubbish, lies my favorite person from history. 

~~

Just like his grave, everything about James Holman that survives today seems hidden or buried — as though he were an ordinary person who doesn’t have anything to teach us. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Because James Holman was a superhero. 

Yet his name turns up little on a search engine. He’s not taught in schools. He’s simply not part of our collective memory. Looking for Holman today is like hunting for a ghost, cataloging phantom fingerprints on the world that grow fainter every year. 

When I visited both the Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, researchers at those places had never heard of tactile compasses. Nor were they aware that a blind man played a starring role in the story of world exploration. 

He saw the entire planet, without ever using his eyes.

Archivists in his hometown of Exeter had never heard of him either, and found no records matching his name. Instead, when I visited there, I studied some Georgian maps and wandered around the city, trying to reach through the semi-opaque veils of history and touch anything that remained of Holman’s reality. 

I walked along the Georgian streets with their handsome cream and red brick buildings. These parts would have looked the same. So too might the cathedral, where Holman would have known the organ — like “a sleeping giant’s face,” as one modern-day choral student noted — and its astronomical clock with a sky-blue face and little golden Earth perched, incorrectly, at the center of the universe. 

But he would also have known the stained-glass windows, some of which would shatter when bombs fell on Exeter in 1942. The church he was baptized in, St. Petrock’s, was once ensconced in the cramped streets like a rusty red jewel. Now it’s part homeless shelter, part semi-preserved house of worship. 

It’s difficult to push aside all that modernity has done to reshape this place. Holman’s image is fuzzy, and I can’t get it into focus. 

Though the author and blind British artist Keith Salmon have different conditions, they both see a dynamic, shimmering mass in their central vision and a kaleidoscope of colors and movement, shadows and shapes in their peripheral view. This work of Salmon’s, titled “A View From My Travels,” is a detail drawn from his 2020 oil painting “On the Shores of Loch Lochy.” Painting: Keith Salmon.

~~

Walking around Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1810, Holman was almost choked by the air. Known as Auld Reekie (“Old Smokey”), the grimy northern capital was perpetually bathed in filmy, crepuscular light, to the point that one poet wrote, “You might smoke bacon by hanging it out the window.” 

Just a few years earlier, Holman — then in his early 20s — had been on a series of ships, destined for a life at sea as he rose through the ranks of the Royal Navy. Now he found himself in a city that was the epicenter of the Scottish Enlightenment, studying at a world-renowned university that had produced, and would continue to produce, a multitude of great contributors to knowledge. Charles Darwin, for example, studied at the University of Edinburgh just a decade after Holman. 

What transported him from one world to the other was something wholly unexpected — the kind of life-changing circumstance almost no one ever sees coming. 

His origin story began ordinarily enough. Born in 1787, the son of an apothecary in Exeter, Holman embarked on a predictable career path for his locale, enlisting in the Navy at the age of 12 (10% of all British naval officers came from Devon at the time). After a decade of active service, mostly spent patrolling the East Coast of North America, Lieutenant Holman was diagnosed with rheumatism — then a catchall term for aches in various parts of the body — and invalided out of the navy with chronic pain. 

As a retired officer in his 20s, he might have enjoyed a respectable life — marriage, good social standing, and plenty of leisure time. But this was not to be. During a period of rest and recuperation in the Roman spa town of Bath, Holman — suddenly and mysteriously — went completely blind. He was just 25 years old. 

The prospect of leading an ordinary, upright citizen’s life evaporated. As a blind person, he would now and forever be a spectacle, a curiosity — at risk of destitution, and perceived as a sort of eunuch. 

But worst of all was the torturous uncertainty of his situation, as his mind was pulled this way and that by the promise of cures, treatments, and possible recovery. His dreams of leaving England for far-flung places — dreams he’d had since childhood — certainly seemed dead. 

“My health was so delicate,” he wrote, “and my nerves so depressed … that I did not suffer myself to indulge in the expectation that I should ever travel.” 

He finally asked those around him to be explicit — “And to let me know the worst, as that could be more easily endured than the agonies of doubt. Their answer, instead of increasing my uneasiness, dispelled it.” 

As one doctor recorded at the time, Holman immediately developed “an undefinable power, almost resembling instinct, which he believes in a lively manner gives him ideas of whatever may be going forward.” 

The realization that his blindness was total, permanent, and incurable was, it turned out, the spider bite that transformed Holman into the most extraordinary version of himself. 

~~

I saw how wrong I was to think that we truly remember all the things we should.

The retired lieutenant wanted to attend medical school but knew that his condition would preclude entrance if he applied directly. Instead, he enrolled in the university’s literature program, mastered conversant Latin and classical Greek, and memorized vast swaths of the world’s greatest written works. His powers of memory soon reached truly extraordinary heights. He later wrote, “Consequently whatever I retain, I retain permanently.” 

Having proved his salt as a scholar, he was allowed to join the students of medicine. By the time he left Auld Reekie, at age 31, Holman was multilingual, had an eidetic memory, and possessed the same level of knowledge and training as medical practitioners of the period. 

Another self-taught skill he acquired was the ability to echolocate with pinpoint accuracy, the way bats and dolphins do, by tapping a metal-tipped walking cane on the ground as he moved.

It is at this point that Holman’s story truly begins to read like fiction. Crossing Siberia, he was suspected of being a British spy. Under guard in hotel rooms, he composed letters to friends in the pitch dark using his noctograph — a writing instrument for the blind that does resemble a gadget used in spy craft. 

He taught himself to ride a horse in South Africa, joined an elephant hunt in Sri Lanka, and when he arrived in what is now Tasmania, his full beard struck such a fashionable chord that local boys who couldn’t grow their own attached wombat tails to their chins to emulate him. 

Holman successfully circumnavigated the globe on a journey that began with his surviving the Eden Mission in West Africa, and he wrote a meticulously researched, four-volume account of this trip in the 1830s. 

But completing a terrestrial circuit had never been a goal to tick off and then set aside. Holman traveled with such genuine love of the journey itself that his nearly incomprehensible feat was, simply, a natural, inevitable by-product of his limitless curiosity and passion for travel. 

His books earned him modest celebrity status back in London, but Holman never stuck around home for too long. Off he went again, catching lifts on British navy ships. 

If crews or captains were hesitant to take on a burdensome blind passenger, he had a stunt he performed to allay their fears: He would deftly climb to the top of the crow’s nest. (This was no mean feat: The Cutty Sark, a roughly contemporaneous ship that now sits on the bank of the Thames in south London, is more than 150 feet tall.) 

Holman’s adventures continued: He smoked opium in China and rode mules through the Brazilian rainforest, where swarms of wasps exploded out of trees and the favored navigation strategy was to burn paths through the dense foliage by setting miles of it on fire. 

By the end of his life Holman had explored every inhabited continent and encountered at least 200 distinct cultures. According to his biographer, he is still to date the greatest pedestrian traveler of all time. By one calculation, he traversed 250,000 miles — the distance from the Earth to the moon. He saw the entire planet, without ever using his eyes. 

~~

I took off my headphones, laid them on the desk, and gazed out my second-floor window. The world beyond the glass looked the same: a wide North London street, planted with enormous plane trees patterning the sky with brown and green filigree. But my mind was no longer in London, seeing that familiar scene. It was full of people and far-off places, ideas and details. 

I already knew that the astonishing audiobook I’d just devoured — Jason Roberts’s brilliant biography of Holman, A Sense of the World — was one of the most important books I’d ever read. And that Holman was one of the most brilliant people I’d ever learned about. 

His story, quite literally, changed my world.

~~

My journey into sight loss was not exactly like Holman’s. But it was similarly out of the blue. In June 2015 I was in South Korea, finishing up a year of working and traveling around East Asia. I was 19 years old. 

One night I realized that people’s faces had become difficult to make out, obscured by some kind of shimmering mass that floated — like something out of science fiction — between my eyes and whatever I was looking directly at. 

I took myself to a hospital, and after days of tests and doctors’ faces screwed up in consternation, I was told I had a rare, degenerative eye disease. After I returned home to England, on a doctor’s insistence, Moorfields Eye Hospital in London confirmed that it was a genetic condition called familial exudative vitreoretinopathy, and that I was already legally blind.

As a blind person, he would now and forever be a spectacle, a curiosity — at risk of destitution.

I did not understand then what I do now: that blindness is a spectrum, and that it manifests itself in about as many ways as there are blind people. 

Though it’s changed over time, my blindness then was characterized by that shimmering mass that obscured my central vision but left my peripheral vision intact. I had thought blindness meant just seeing an endless amount of the color black. But what I really see is the opposite — colors and shadows and lights and moving shapes, always dynamic. 

I expected the dark, static vacuum of deep space. Instead, I got a kaleidoscope of star-splashed galaxies, inside my eyes. 

What does the world look like without sight? For the 19th-century “Blind Traveller” James Holman, who circumnavigated the globe, it was a never-ending series of scenes. For the 21st-century artist Salmon, who paints one scene at a time, it can look like this detail from “Around Canisp, Evening Light, Evening Mist” — a 2022 oil painting inspired by a mountain in northwestern Scotland. Painting: Keith Salmon.

When I was first diagnosed, blindness felt completely tragic. It was a trauma that people pitied me for, or were repulsed by, or just had so little understanding of that it led to a range of unpleasant and upsetting interactions, almost on a daily basis. 

Things that I had done every day without thinking were difficult now. Blindness made the countryside seem as empty as deep space. Wandering the city felt like a drunken ramble along the side of a motorway. Honestly, blindness was exhausting, and I thought I’d have to live my life always feeling like that. 

I thought the best relationship I could have with my condition was acceptance — making my peace with how sight loss would shape my life going forward. I thought I was in the healthiest place I could be.

But acceptance and peacemaking was not the final stage — and was far from the healthiest place. 

~~

Coming across James Holman’s name, in the course of a conversation with someone, was innocuous enough — there was no shining light, no singing choir to announce that big, fantastical changes were coming my way. His was just a name on a list of historical blind luminaries I was compiling in my head, alongside Homer, Milton, Euler, and Borges — people who loomed far larger in my consciousness, cast invisibilizing shadows, and came with vast, validating troves of data to comb through, both online and on paper. 

As soon as I delved a little deeper, though, I saw how wrong I was to think that we truly remember all the things we should. 

Holman transmuted total blindness and almost lifelong chronic pain into one of the most fantastical human lifetimes ever. He embraced the chaos of not being able to see — not with passive resignation but in active enjoyment of the loss of humanity’s sensory comfort zone. 

It wasn’t about proving himself to others. Holman simply saw more in life to enjoy than to despair over: He possessed a “cheerfulness that has never deserted me even on the most trying occasions.”  

Understandably, he seems to have made friends wherever he went. One of them noted how Holman, after meeting someone for the first time, would swiftly adopt “the earnest tone of an ancient friendship.” 

Like all the heroes and heroines who inspire and empower us, Holman showed me a road map of what I was capable of being and doing. If he could do all the things he did, then why not anyone else? Why not me? 

Nor was it just my mind that rang with all these new possibilities for what blindness could be. My body, too, gained power. 

After my eyesight dramatically deteriorated in the spring of 2019, while I was completing my bachelor’s degree, the eight-minute walk from my nearest Tube station to my parent’s apartment — along a dark, quiet street and then a busy road without a pedestrian crossing — had begun to make me feel anxious and afraid. Each step into the pitch dark was a leap of faith. Any one could plunge me into an abyss indistinguishable from what I could see around me. 

The solution I worked out was that my brother would pick me up and walk home with me. Companionable, yes — but it felt like a cruel necessity. Like my fears were in control. 

Holman changed all that. 

He taught me how to celebrate blindness and embrace all the weird and wonderful rabbit holes it leads me down. Now I see beauty. Now when I walk between the station and my apartment at night, I don’t feel fear but rather a kind of exhilaration. Now the void all around me, created by blindness, isn’t imprisoning. It’s freeing. 

Not being able to see the world around me doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; It means that instead I can gradually discover it with each footfall — as if I’m creating it. 

When I step forward into blackness, I trust that the earth will catch me. And I haven’t been wrong yet. 

~~

My world had changed thanks to Holman. I quickly adopted him as the ultimate antidote to feeling that blindness could stop me from doing or being anything I want — and my weapon of choice when countering such a mindset in others. 

But it seems his was a story that almost the entire world had passed over. Our pantheon of heroes and heroines reads like the VIP list for an exclusive club — a glittering cavalcade of pop stars, princesses, pro athletes, and prime ministers. I began to appreciate more acutely how rare blind role models from history are — and why they’re so important.

Looking for Holman today is like hunting for a ghost, cataloging phantom fingerprints on the world that grow fainter every year.

When I visited the National Archives in West London, I could find only three items pertaining to Holman. One was a slip of paper from September 1863 stating that a Henry Vines of Clifton, Bristol, owned the copyright for a photograph of the late James Holman, with no indication of where such a photograph might be. 

The second was a letter, in which Holman and people acting on his behalf fought for his right to leave England and continue traveling. This was delivered to me in a deep filing box piled high with envelopes of Home Office correspondence. After half an hour of shuffling through pages of impenetrable 19th-century handwriting, I gave up on finding Holman’s name. 

The third and final thing was a page in a huge, hardbound naval logbook. On its cover was a rectangle of scarlet, worn pink and silken at the edges, with what was once “RECORDS OFFICE” picked out in gold. Inside was a list of all the ships Holman had served on and notice of his promotion to lieutenant on April 27, 1807, when he was 20. 

It was this item — with Holman’s name written in an elegant early modern script — that most conjured the feeling that he was someone real and not some imaginary friend I made up.

~~

“I’m so glad you brought Holman to my attention,” the kind and enthusiastic archivist said, as she laid out envelopes of photostats and helped me fill in access consent forms. “It’s always nice to get to know Royal Society members I didn’t know about before.” 

We were sitting in the library and archive of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence. It’s now based in an elegant building in London, not far from Buckingham Palace. In Holman’s time it was in the even grander Somerset House, by the river. 

Together the archivist and I pored over a letter recommending that Holman be allowed to join the Society, which described him as “a Gentleman much attached to Science,” who was “likely to become an useful and valuable Member.” There was a photograph of an elderly Holman reclining in a leather chair with his trusty walking stick, his face almost lost in a glowing white ball of hair and beard. 

I lingered even longer over a black-and-white engraving of Holman, captured as though in mid-sentence, with parted lips and one hand gesturing. It’s a wonderfully evocative portrait, with Holman part teacher, part grandfather, and part Santa Claus, his glorious beard cascading like a cloud of silver candy floss over the lapels of his black Victorian jacket. 

His full beard struck such a fashionable chord that local boys who couldn’t grow their own attached wombat tails to their chins to emulate him.

Finally, the archivist led me to a part of the building not generally open to the public. There, in a dim stairwell, hung Holman’s painted portrait. Here he’s young and relaxed-looking, with a gingery beard, an open-collared white shirt, and the shiny metal casing of either a tactile compass or watch clipped to his belt. He holds his walking stick loosely between forefinger and thumb like an enormous pencil, and looks every bit the classic adventurer. 

It’s an image that smashes every stereotype of what 19th-century disability looked like. A picture with so much power — yet locked away for nobody to see. 

People shouldn’t have to dig through archives to find the individuals who empower us, inspire us, and show us that being different is something that makes us strong. 

~~

I’m not the first person in modern times to go looking for Holman. American author Jason Roberts’s brilliant biography of him was published in 2006. 

Roberts has acknowledged the urgency of trying to save Holman from being lost forever, as history piles up and canons shaped by old value systems get perpetuated ad infinitum. Hunting for the Blind Traveller two decades ago, he realized that ever-expanding archives all over the world were being forced to erase evidence of a man no one seemed to know or care about. 

“If I had waited even two more years, [these archival materials] would have been lost,” Roberts told Mental Floss in 2017. 

We’ll never know how many fascinating lives lived by disabled people have slipped through the cracks. But it’s not too late to diversify our pantheon of explorers and adventurous role models so that they can better inspire and empower the population today. After all, a full 15% of us are disabled. 

Fortunately, Jason Roberts and I are not alone in wanting to raise awareness of James Holman. Since 2017, an American charity — the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired — has run an annual competition in Holman’s name. 

The Holman Prize awards up to $25,000 each to three legally blind people from anywhere in the world, to do something adventurous and ambitious that challenges popular conceptions of what blindness limits people from doing. 

I pored over the nonprofit’s website, looking at a list of previous winners — blind Ugandan beekeepers, kayakers of the Bosphorus Strait, Nepalese doctors, and sea stack climbers. It seemed like serendipity that Holman could not only inspire what I wanted to do — travel and write and take photographs and endlessly explore — but also physically make that dream a reality. 

In March of 2021, I applied. In August, I won. 

~~

Not being able to see the world around me doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; It means that instead I can gradually discover it with each footfall — as if I’m creating it.

Flying to Japan for the fifth time in my life, I watched the sun set twice: Twice I saw it sink beneath the clouds through the airplane window, as though the whole sky were a television screen and I had pressed fast-forward. 

It had been a long time since I’d been able to come here, to this country that I’ve loved, and studied, since I was a teenager. Tokyo, when we touched down at an almost empty Narita International Airport, was warm and dark. Boarding the train and hearing the unique waterfall of bells signaling each station triggered such acute nostalgia that I grinned uncontrollably the whole ride. 

Speaking Japanese again, too, felt like eating a favorite sweet from childhood. As I rolled half-remembered words around in my mouth, reacquainting myself with their shape and taste, the four years since I had last been in Japan started to melt away as though I were sucking on an ever-shrinking gobstopper. 

I arrived in time for the last clear day before the rainy season. Sweating as soon as I left my hotel, I headed to a local park and drank cold barley tea while overlooking a pond with impossibly green water, with sunlight floating as pure yellow mist on its surface. 

I expected the dark, static vacuum of deep space. Instead, I got a kaleidoscope of star-splashed galaxies, inside my eyes.

When the rain began a day later — warm, quiet rain — I took a slippery outdoor escalator up to a nearby shrine. Looking back down at the city behind me, I could see an oscillating mass of identical clear umbrellas moving along the streets — like a time lapse of little mushrooms growing. In the distance, the rain was erasing the Tokyo skyline then penciling it back in again, over and over — hiding trees and towers behind wet white curtains and then changing its mind. 

Tokyo is only the beginning. I’m not a tourist or a student this time, as I was during previous visits. This time I have a whole year — funded by the Holman Prize — to explore more of Japan than I ever thought I’d be able to, from uninhabited islands to pilgrimage paths, primeval forests to mountaintop temples to volcanoes hundreds of miles out to sea. All the while, I’ll be writing and illustrating a book about my experiences as a blind solo traveler. 

James Holman showed me what I can do, and who I could be. So here I am, far from home, wandering into the shimmering void that is forever in front of me now. There, I find endless iterations of beauty and wonder. 

And even when I can’t see it, I know the Earth is all around me — and trust that it will catch me if I fall.

Maud Rowell

Maud Rowell is a blind writer and film photographer from London with a background in Japanese studies. Her mission is to educate and inform others about the realities of sight loss.

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