James Holman: Son of Apothecary Turned World Famous Blind Traveler

” If you wished to voyage the world in a mindflight instant,” writes James Holman’s biographer, “you needed only to step into the Exeter establishment of John Holman, Chymist & Surgeon, close your eyes, and breathe deep the mingled scents of all known continents. It was an apothecary in the very latest mercantile fashion, selling not only medicinal products but just about anything that could be powdered, dried, or otherwise prepared for transport from afar. Cayenne pepper and soy from India, tapioca from the West Indies, Arabian cashews, Brazilian cocoa and coffee, Cathay tea, Spanish capers, even Italian macaroni—those were only the foodstuffs, arrayed in open barrels and bins, on offer by the pound, ounce, or pinch. Behind the counter, in Latin-labeled glass and earthenware jars, were the essentials for compounding prescriptions in legal accordance with the London Pharmacopoeia, fragrant esoterics like galbanum from Persia and myrrh from northern Africa.”

Portrait of James Holman.This magical description of the fragrant apothecary shop where James Holman (1786-1857) spent his childhood stands at the beginning of the remarkable book A Sense of the World: How A Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts, and represents in the biographer’s mind a fairly obvious seed. How could a boy with the goods of the world at his fingertips not wonder about their far-flung origins.

Although stepping into his father’s apothecarian footsteps would have firmly squashed Holman’s “desire to explore distant regions”–and indeed he narrowly escaped that destiny–it’s not hard to see why Roberts starts the incredible life of Holman in the apothecary shop, where the materiality of all the inhabited continents Holman would someday tread, was on display to all the senses, offering evidence that the world was on the one hand vast and exotic, and on the other hand measurable and perceivable.

Holman did not start life out blind, but he did start ambitious, and by the time he was twelve Roberts tells us that he was on the HMS Royal George, dreaming of a life of exploration:

“I felt an irresistible impulse to become acquainted with as many parts of the world as my professional avocations would permit, … and I was determined not to rest satisfied until I had completed the circumnavigation of the globe.”

Although illness and blindness would strike him young–he was suddenly and mysteriously completely blind at age twenty-five–the dreams of travel would not be dampened by an early retirement. I recommend reading Roberts’s biography for the full and incredible story. Or, for a quick sketch, check out Who is James Holman? at the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, where each year, three ambitious blind people are awarded $25,000 to make their Holman-sized ambitions a reality.

As I discuss in this article, I’m applying for the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition in order to launch the first issue of Aromatica Poetica as a print, braille, digital and audio magazine. For the feature issue of that first issue, I’m proposing an olfactory tour of Europe, from the perfume capital of the world in Grasse, France, to the Istanbul Spice Bazaar, with a nose to discovering and writing about not only the goods of cultivation and commerce such as jasmine and wine, Turkish coffee and bergamot, but also the smell of the volcanic rock of Mount Etna. We are not just interested in pretty smells at Aromatica Poetica! Check out our article on the corpse flower, if you don’t believe me.

My olfactory tour is at once inspired by Holman’s travels and distinct from them, as Holman did not have many nice things to say about smells, and unfortunately, oftentimes when he does mention odors in A Voyage Round the World it is mixed up with some rather Victorian prudishness regarding the varieties of smells exuding from the human bodies he encountered, that can be discomforting to a modern ear. However, his sensitivities did extend to his fellow Englishmen. according to Roberts, “Three years of blindness had honed his sense of smell to the point that even tobacco smoke was difficult to tolerate.”

Map of the world, 1778.

In Russia, we have a lovely description of the sort of portrait a keen nose draws:

…the native Tartar who had driven the Cochranes all the way from Tobolsk was still in Moscow, available for hire. He was a fierce-looking man with a formidable beard, in girdled caftan and tall boots, but, to Holman, he was a torrent of muttered oaths and a gathered smell of horses, kvass (a naturally carbonated, fermented beverage made from rye), and Russian leather (which Holman’s nose could distinguish from European leather).

In Fernando Po, an island off the west coast of Africa (now Bioko), Roberts tells us how Holman blended the sensory impressions of his fellow voyagers with his own to write his travels:

Holman took extensive notes of his companions’ first impressions. “Luxuriant foliage of various tints and hues,” he wrote, “blending with the scarcely ruffled bosom of the ocean, and the retiring clouds…formed such a variegated picture of natural beauty, that we unanimously hailed it as the land of promise.” He could add to that his own sensory impressions: the uniquely complex smells of truly primeval forest, well populated with parrots, cuckoos, the African Green Pigeon, and numerous species unique to the island, awaiting discovery. The land was richly scented, and alive with birdsong.

In some ways then his blindness might be understood as an advantage in writing compelling travel narratives. In addition to the descriptions given him by his sighted companions, probably pushed along by Holman’s curious questioning, he could add what often goes unnoticed by sighted travelers: the smells and sounds of flora and fauna.