The Blind Traveller

The foundation of the Naval Knights of Windsor was established in 1795 to accommodate and maintain “seven Gentlemen who are to be superannuated or disabled Lieutenants of English Men of War” in exchange for their attending regular services in St George’s Chapel. Each Naval Knight was permitted four months leave each year, provided that at least four of them remained in residence at all times. One man, however, extended his leave far beyond that.

James Holman, born in 1786, entered the Navy as a 1st Class Volunteer at the age of twelve. From 1807, he was commissioned as Lieutenant but in 1810, at 25 years of age, he contracted an illness which left him totally blind and with limited mobility. This ended his naval career and in 1812 he was appointed a Naval Knight of Windsor. Within a short time he was said to have found the “quietude of the life there intolerable”. He petitioned for a leave absence, citing that his only chance of recovery lay in a “continual change of Air and Scene”. His extensive, well documented travels earned him the title of The Blind Traveller.

Lieutenant Holman travelled alone, “trusting his own sagacity and the sympathy of others”. His childhood ambition to see the world became an ambition to experience it and the rest of his life was dedicated to his travels. On his first tour of Europe, he had a highly unusual adventure while believing himself to be waiting in a stationary carriage in Bordeaux. He patiently awaited assistance to exit the carriage for more than an hour before the other passengers returned to explain the delay. During that time, they had arrived at the Dordogne River, the other passengers had crossed by ferry and caught a coach to take them downstream, while the carriage – with Holman still aboard – had been transported onto a raft and he had travelled four miles by water without having the least idea of moving!

His adventures would take him across the world. In Italy, he charred his walking stick at the summit of Mount Vesuvius and in Russia, while attempting to reach the Chinese border, he was mistakenly arrested as a spy. He would eventually make it to China on one of his later travels as well Australia, New Zealand and Syria among others. He would also visit Africa and America, and was part of the second party to climb Table Mountain on horseback. Later, travelling through Equatorial Guinea, he joined the fight against slavery and spent some time working on anti-slaver ships.

In 1832 Lieutenant Holman achieved the distinction of being the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe. He published an account of this journey under the title A Voyage Round the World (1834-5). His achievements were widely recognised: he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Linnaean Society and his writings on plant life in the Indian Ocean are cited as a source in Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

In his own words, Holman found that through travel he was “enabled to extract from calamity so large a measure of enjoyment. How many resources against discontent and loneliness this beautiful and varied earth presents.”

A full account of Lieutenant Holman’s life can be found in an unpublished history of the Naval Knights of Windsor by Peter Clissold, held in the St George’s Chapel Archives.

Beth Elliott, work exchange trainee

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.