Monday, April 7, 2008

Mary Kingsley: Friend of Cannibals

“Being human, she must have feared some things, but one never arrived at what they were”
– Rudyard Kipling

Mary Kingsley in jungle dress
IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE a more unlikely looking explorer than Mary Henrietta Kingsley. Forget pith helmets and safari jackets, the redoubtable Miss Kingsley trooped across Africa dressed like she was off to a Victorian tea party.

Appearances were important, even in the sweltering jungle. It was her firm opinion that a lady had “no right to go about in Africa in things you would be ashamed to be seen in at home”. So she dressed in the tropics as she did in London – impeccably.

Her tall, slim frame was always covered from neck to toe by a prim cotton blouse, black shawl and long, black woollen skirt. She wore a corset. And her fair hair was always pinned back and covered by a neat black bonnet tied under her chin with a bow. Feminists suggested Mary try wearing men’s trousers, a more practical alternative in the African rainforest. “I would rather,” she said, “[have] perished on a public scaffold.”

Mary Kingsley was born in 1862 in Islington, north London, just four days after the shotgun wedding of her parents. Her dad was a doctor, her mum a cockney servant. Within a month of the marriage, Dr Kingsley had left the country for the first of many long journeys overseas. Mary would see little of him growing up.

Hers was a lonely, imprisoned upbringing. While Dr Kingsley roamed the world, Mrs Kingsley sank into chronic ill-health and depression. Mary was expected to play the role of dutiful daughter, nursing her mum round the clock, rarely going outside. While still very young, she took charge of running the household. “I knew nothing of play and such things,” she later wrote.

She was a bright girl, Mary, but was given no formal education. The only thing her mum seems to have taught her was how to talk cockney. All her life, Mary would drop her hs like an East End flower girl – a habit that always amazed her middle-class peers.

But when she wasn’t helping her mum, Mary educated herself. She spent hours in her absent dad’s library lost in his books. She studied physics, chemistry, biology and maths. She learned Latin and German. She even taught herself how to fix the plumbing in her home by subscribing to a trade magazine.

Then in 1891, the wandering Dr Kingsley returned after picking up rheumatic fever on his travels. Within months, he was dead. His invalid wife, who’d had a stroke, followed him to the grave a few weeks later. Mary’s grey, slavish existence was suddenly over. She was twenty-nine and, for the first time in her life, she was free.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that she should want to cut loose. But what the newly liberated Miss Kingsley did next was so bizarre, so unimaginable for a Victorian lady, so out of keeping with her life up to that point, it’s barely believable - she went to West Africa to study tropical fish and cannibals.

Women simply didn’t go it alone in Africa back then - and certainly not in malaria-ridden West Africa, the White Man’s Grave. A few brave married ladies ventured out, the wives of missionaries and colonial officials. But single female explorers were not only unheard of, they were unthinkable.

Mary made two long African journeys – in 1893 and 1895 - roaming up and down the West Coast and pushing deep into the rainforests of the interior. Unlike so many male explorers of her time, she travelled light with only a handful of hired Africans for company. There was no army of porters, no arsenal of rifles, no tin bath, not even a tent.

She made her way without any fuss by trading tobacco, cloth and gin. She hacked her own way through the bush with a machete and she paddled her own canoe. People downed tools and stared in astonishment as she marched unheralded into their remote villages, pale-faced, straight-backed, formally dressed in black. Children fled in terror. Africa had never seen anything like her.

Before she left Britain, a friend recommended a West African phrase book. This cheery language guide opened with the exclamation, “Help, I’m drowning!”. There was also, “Get up you lazy scamps!”. And it included the memorable question, “Why has this man not been buried?” to which the answer was, “It is fetish [magic] that has killed him, and he must lie here exposed… until only the bones remain.”

Mary didn’t bother with it. Nor did she take a hot water bottle sent to her by another well-meaning but clearly bemused acquaintance. Instead she stuffed her waterproof bag with blankets, boots, a bowie knife, a revolver, anti-malarial medicine and an old book of Latin poetry. She also found room for one little luxury: tea. Then she made out her will, headed to Liverpool and joined a cargo ship bound for Africa.

Ominously, shipping agents refused to sell Mary a return ticket (so few people came back from West Africa in those days it wasn’t considered worth it). The only two other women on board both got off at the Canary Islands. Baffled male passengers thought Mary was a mad missionary with a death wish. But for her, it all made perfect sense. She’d been reading about Africa – its exotic people, its strange animals – for years. Arriving in Angola in August 1893 felt like coming home.

The intrepid Miss Kingsley didn’t do anything too suicidal on that first African journey. This was something of a trial run, the first, she hoped, of many such voyages. But it was still a thousand times more adventurous than anything attempted by other white travellers of her day.

She spent six months moving north through Congo, Cameroon and Nigeria. She lived with local people in their thatched huts, eating the African “chop” of palm oil stew, smashed snails, plantain and yam. She spent hours “puddling about” swamps in dugout canoes, catching rare fish and insects which she pickled in jars and brought back to the British Museum. And she had endless scrapes and narrow escapes – “knockabout farces before King Death” she liked to call them.

One night Mary was woken by a savage growling outside her hut and emerged to see a black leopard attacking a dog a few yards off. The sensible option would have been to retreat back inside, pulling the hut door firmly behind her. Instead Mary went to the rescue with a chair, hurling it at the deadly cat.

The counterattack worked; the dog broke free. But now the leopard turned on her, crouching to spring, its eyes “green balls of fire”. Mary picked up an earthen water jug and chucked it with all her strength at the wild animal. Bull’s-eye! The jug exploded like a shell on the cat’s head. “This discouraged the creature,” she writes to a friend. And the startled beast fled back into the darkness all around.

More knockabout farces followed on Mary’s second African adventure in 1895. This time she really went for it, pushing deep into the bush, going boldly where no white man – and certainly no white woman – had gone before. She was there a year. She ran into gorillas, scorpions and poisonous snakes, some of which she ate for lunch. She saw a man savaged to death by another leopard. When dozy hippos blocked her path Mary used her umbrella to prod them out of the way.

The hairiest moment came when a crocodile clambered onto the back of her canoe and, in her words, “endeavoured to improve our acquaintance”. Mary shuffled to the front of the unsteady little dugout, took aim, and gave the monster an almighty whack on the snout with her paddle. It did the trick. The reptile retreated. And Mary brushed off the incident: at just eight feet long, she says, the animal was “only a pushing young creature who had not learnt manners”.

But it was Africa’s people, not animals, who really excited her. She was fascinated by local rituals and customs. She was enthralled by African witchcraft and magic, what she called “fetish”. And above all she was drawn to the Fang, a fierce tribe who lived in the forest and were renowned for their cannibal feasts.

Despite the Fang’s spine-chilling reputation for dining on passers-by, Mary had her heart set on meeting them. So she took a steamboat as far as it was possible to go up the Ogooue River, deep into Fang territory in what was then the French Congo. And from there she continued alone on foot and by canoe, pickling interesting fish as she went and getting to know the locals.

They didn’t eat her of course. Far from it. The Fang proved a surprisingly friendly bunch. Instead of putting her in the pot, they showed her the best way to cook snake. She taught them a few English phrases, enjoying hearing them say “Dear me, now” and “Who’d have thought it?”. A dozen white ladies’ blouses were traded for ivory and rubber. And all in all, the prim Victorian spinster found her cannibal hosts a bright lot “full of fire, temper, intelligence and go”.

Mary’s adventures in Fang country continued with a brutal trek across the dangerous, slimy swamplands to the north of the Ogooue River. No European had ever set foot here before. It was what Mary liked to call a “choice spot”. She took four Fang “gentlemen” and six other African guys with her. And pretty soon the lot of them were, in a very literal sense, up to their necks in shit.

The worst stretch of swamp took more than two hours to cross. Plucky old Mary plunged in and waded through without fuss, the filthy, stinking water coming up to her chin. When she finally clambered out at the other side her exposed hands and neck were completely covered in leeches. She nearly fainted from loss of blood.

Another time she was walking through the forest when she stepped on a camouflaged animal trap. Its cover of leaves and branches gave way beneath her. She plunged fifteen foot into a pit. And she landed, in a most unladylike heap, on a bed of spikes. “It is at these times you realised the blessing of a good thick skirt,” she writes. “Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England… and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone, and done for.”

Mary was lucky. “Save for a good many bruises,” she continues, “here I was with the fullness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out.” Her African companions gathered at the rim of the hole and peered down. “You kill?” asked one. “Not much,” responded Mary. They pulled her out with a bush rope and the party marched resolutely onwards.

Just a few minutes later, however, one of her men – a quiet chap she nicknamed Silence - also disappeared through the forest floor into another spiked animal pit. Silence was less fortunate than his boss. He survived. But since he didn’t have the benefit of a good thick skirt, he emerged, Mary reports, “a good deal frayed at the edges”. His wounds had to be bound up with large jungle leaves.

One night the eleven exhausted travellers arrived at a Fang village called Efoua. Mary was given a hut to sleep in and she crashed out as once, fully dressed and still wearing her wet boots. But a few hours later she was woken by a gruesome smell. It had, she says, “an unmistakable organic origin”. And it was coming from an odd collection of bags hanging from the roof.

She pulled the biggest one down, untied it and carefully poured its contents into her hat. No wonder things were wiffy. Mary found herself staring at a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears and other bits and bobs that clearly belonged underground. “The hand was fresh,” says Mary, “the others only so so and shrivelled.” Not wishing to pry further, she popped the human parts back in the bag, carefully re-fastened it, and stepped outside for spot of fresh air.

After leaving the Fang, Mary returned to the coast and rounded off her epic adventure by climbing Mount Cameroon. She was, she says, “the third Englishman” to scale the 13,760-foot peak (the first was Sir Richard Burton). She was also the first white woman to do it (perhaps the first woman full-stop, white or black). And she reached the wind-battered, rain-soaked summit completely alone, her five male companions having abandoned the tough climb halfway up.

News quickly spread of the mountain-climbing, fish-collecting, cannibal-studying spinster. And by the time Mary got back to Liverpool in November 1895 she was already an unlikely celebrity. For the next three years she would travel up and down the country, lecturing to thousands. She wrote two rollicking bestsellers, modestly titled “Travels in West Africa” and “West African Studies”. And she waded into controversy with the same guts and gusto that she had marched through fetid swamps.

She accused Christian missionaries of trying to “murder” African culture. She attacked do-gooders who would ban booze exports to Africa. She defended the African man’s right to have more than one wife. And she took regular pot-shots at ignorant Brits who saw black people as savages in need of salvation.

“I do not believe the African to be brutal or degraded or cruel,” Mary writes in a letter to the Spectator magazine. “I know from wide experience… that he is… by no means the drunken idiot his so-called friends, the Protestant missionaries are anxious… to make him out.” The Spectator called her views “cynical”.*

When Mary wasn’t off lecturing round the country she kept her small London flat heated at tropical temperatures. She filled it with African souvenirs: wooden masks, ivory carvings, musical instruments. She spent all her free time planning her next big trip, her next chance to “skylark and enjoy myself in Africa”. The so-called Dark Continent had put light and joy and hope back into her lonely life; she couldn’t wait to get back there.

But this story ends on an unhappy note. When the Boer War broke out Mary volunteered as a nurse and sailed not to her beloved West Africa but to war-ravaged South Africa. She was posted to an overcrowded prisoner of war hospital on the Cape. And she endured two terrible months there, a time of misery and horror and death.

Mary had more than a hundred Boer prisoners under her care, farm boys mostly; young men brought in with festering bayonet and bullet wounds and appalling blast injuries. Typhoid fever was rife. Bugs and lice were everywhere. Mary would see five or six men die on the wards every shift. “Killing work,” is how she describes it.

In the evenings she would call on her friend Rudyard Kipling who lived nearby. The poet listened to her speak about her work with calm dignity and admired her bravery. “Being human,” he said “she must have feared some things, but one never arrived at what they were.” Then one morning in late May 1900 Mary woke in pain and knew that she too had the fever.

It didn’t take long. On 1 June a doctor confirmed the worst. By the following day it was clear Mary was in a losing battle. And that afternoon, before delirium took hold, this fearless and funny young woman did a curious thing: she asked her colleagues to withdraw from her room and allow her to face death as she had faced life, alone.

Mary Kingsley died in the early hours of 3 June, aged thirty-seven. She was buried at sea, her final wish. Enemy Boers were among those who paid their respects as soldiers carried her casket onto a torpedo boat. The vessel steamed out into the Atlantic. And Mary’s body was lowered overboard a few miles off the coast of her beloved Africa.

And that would have been that were it not for one final twist in the tale of the magnificent Miss Kingsley, a last little joke that would certainly have made her smile: instead of sinking like a stone, her coffin floated. It popped back up to the ocean’s surface and sat bobbing about cheerily on the waves. No one, it seems, had thought to weight it.

Mourners on the deck of the torpedo boat watched in disbelief as Mary’s mortal remains floated gently away on the sea current. “Dear me,” you can imagine her saying, “what a knockabout farce.” Then a lifeboat rushed out to catch the runaway coffin, a sailor hooked a spare anchor to its brass fittings, and the wooden box with Mary inside (still no doubt impeccably dressed) was sent hurtling to the ocean floor.

* Footnote: It wasn’t just Africa that got contrary Mary fired up. She disapproved of bicycles, disliked London’s omnibuses, and was against votes for women because “women are unfit for Parliament and Parliament is unfit for them”.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Frank, Katherine, A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley (London, 2005)
Simpson, Helen, A Woman Among Wild Men (London, 1938)
Kingsley, Mary, The Congo and the Cameroons (extracts from Travels in West Africa) (London, 2007)
Russell, Mary, The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and Their World (London, 1986)
Robinson, Jane, Wayward Women: A Guide to Women Travellers (Oxford, 1990)
Robinson, Jane, Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers (Oxford 1994)

James Holman: the Blind Traveller

“He had eyes in his mouth, eyes in his nose, eyes in his ears, and eyes in his mind”
– William Jerdan

James Holman: restless chap
JAMES HOLMAN TRAVELLED a whopping quarter of a million miles in his lifetime - further than anyone had ever travelled before. It was a record that stood well into the twentieth century. And he did it, incredibly, despite being totally blind.

And not just blind. Holman also suffered from an acute form of rheumatism. The pain was often so bad he couldn’t get out of bed. But when the worst agonies had passed, he would always pick himself up, grab his battered walking stick and carry on globetrotting. The man was awesome. He was unstoppable.

James Holman was a Devonian, born in Exeter in 1786. A healthy boy with perfect vision, he dreamed of seeing the world. At the age of twelve, he joined the Royal Navy and set sail for the Atlantic. He served there for a dozen years, patrolling the freezing waters off Canada and New England, rising to the rank of lieutenant.

But life at sea was brutal and the Exeter lad was unlucky. The constant cold and wet started to get to him. Mysterious pains began to shoot through his bones. His feet and ankles became inflamed. Soon he was barely able to walk. No use to the navy, Lieutenant Holman was sent back to England in 1810, an invalid.

And it got worse. While recuperating in the spa city of Bath, his eyesight too began to fail. It’s not clear why; perhaps there was some link to the rheumatism. But the deterioration was rapid and catastrophic. In a matter of weeks, poor Holman was left not only crippled, but completely blind. He was just twenty-five years old.

Lesser men might have jacked it all in right there. In the early nineteenth century blind people were viewed, at best, as creatures to pity. No one would dream of hiring a man who couldn’t see – even a bright one like Holman. The blind were expected to settle for a life of begging in the street, a rag tied round their damaged eyes to avoid upsetting sensitive passers-by.

But from the start Holman had other ideas. He wasn’t going to be treated as a charity case. As soon as he was able, he began venturing out alone, learning how to navigate city streets with his metal-tipped walking stick. He wore his blue Royal Navy uniform wherever he went. He refused to wear a blindfold.

He secured a small income by getting accepted as a Naval Knight, an honorary position for disabled sailors which came with a yearly allowance and free lodging at Windsor Castle. He worked hard at sharpening his wits, honing his sense of touch, hearing and smell to make up for being sightless. He got used to people mysteriously raising their voices when speaking to him as if he must also be hard of hearing. And then he got himself an education.

Studying medicine at Edinburgh University was a mad idea. Holman had left school at twelve. He was a decade older than most students. And braille hadn’t been invented so he couldn’t read text books. It’s a testament to his doggedness that he completed his studies by repeatedly attending lectures – once, twice, three times – till all the information stuck. Then, on the advice of his doctor, he left Scotland and set off to Mediterranean for its healing sunshine.

A leisurely cruise to the South of France accompanied by a nurse and servants is what the doc had in mind. But Holman’s modest budget didn’t stretch to that. So instead he hobbled aboard a bog-standard ferry to Calais and went south overland, travelling entirely alone. It was the best decision of his life.

The journey that followed would have been hell for a healthy man. France’s roads were a muddy, pot-holed mess after years of war. Coach journeys were spine-jolting, soul-destroying ordeals that rumbled on painfully through the night. Passengers were crammed in on top of one another. Holman couldn’t speak a word of French.

But the Exeter lad who’d once dreamed of seeing the world loved it. “Behold me, then, in France!” he writes joyously, “Surrounded by a people, to me, strange, invisible, and incomprehensible.”

His health improved. His spirits lifted. Sometimes, on slow stretches of road, he’d hop out of his coach, tie a bit of string to its wooden frame – then jog along behind holding the cord. The exercise invigorated him. He was becoming a man of adventure.

Holman trundled steadily through France like that for a year, pausing in Paris, Toulouse and Montpellier. He must have been a curious sight: a tall, thin, sightless Englishman, still wearing his navy uniform. And now he wore a big straw sunhat too.

He became expert at making his way around strange cities, tap-tap-tapping with his walking stick, soaking up the sounds and smells of town squares and market places, feeling his way around new buildings. Always the perfect gentleman, women quickly warmed to him and would let him explore their faces with his hands. Holman loved that. Blind or not, he had quite an eye for the ladies.

People asked him how a sightless man could enjoy sightseeing. He told them that his blindness heightened the pleasures of travel. It gave him what he called “a stronger zest to curiosity”, forced him to pause and examine everything deeply. The journalist William Jerdan, who knew Holman, grasped what he meant. “[Holman] had eyes in his mouth, eyes in his nose, eyes in his ears,” he writes, “and eyes in his mind, never blinking.”

After France, Holman should have headed home. Naval Knights had obligations as well as privileges. He’d been given a year’s leave from Windsor Castle, no more. Now he was expected to return and fulfil the main duty of a knight: attending chapel twice daily. But Holman couldn’t do it. He was on a roll. He had the bug. Instead of turning around, he kept on going down the boot of Italy.

In Rome, the blind adventurer climbed up inside the dome of St Peter’s Basilica and tried (unsuccessfully) to get out a window and scale the cross on its roof. Fired up, he then hiked to the top of Mount Vesuvius – while the volcano was active. He was the first blind person to reach the summit. He tapped his way gingerly round the crater, singeing his walking stick in the process and filling his boots with ash.

In nearby Naples, Holman hooked up with an old navy pal, a guy he calls Mr C. The anonymous Mr C had gone deaf since the pair served together in the Atlantic. But he too had developed a passion for travel. So the blind man and the deaf man teamed up and went north together through Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. It was the one and only time that Holman chose to travel with a companion.

The friends parted in Amsterdam. Then, when he was good and ready, Holman took a ferry back to Britain. It was now 1821. He’d been gone more than seven hundred days. He’d overstayed his leave from Windsor Castle by almost a year.

Yet six months later he was off again. He stuck around in England just long enough to dictate a book about his adventures in Europe*. By the time it hit the bookshelves, he was gone. Wandering around Europe had been a warm-up. Now he was going to attempt the mother of all journeys: a complete circuit of the world.

Circumnavigating the globe in the 1820s was the stuff of fantasy. A few sailors and merchants had done it. But independent travellers didn’t go there – the seas were too dangerous, berths on sailing ships too expensive, and the trip would take forever. Only a nutcase would even consider it; a nutcase like the half-crippled, totally blind Royal Navy Lieutenant James Holman.

Holman had a plan: he’d cut down the cost of sea voyages by travelling as far as possible overland in public transport, sleeping in cheap hostels and eating local food. That meant he had only one route open to him, a path no circumnavigator had tried before. Instead of sailing west to the New World, he would have to start by going east into the vast Russian Empire. He was going to try to cross Siberia.

The journey began okay. Holman took a boat to St Petersburg, then a public sledge to Moscow. But when he told people there he was going to continue east, Muscovite jaws dropped in amazement. They called him insane. “The name of Siberia seemed connected in their minds only with horror,” he reports.

But Holman was fixed on getting to Russia’s far eastern coast where he hoped to find a whaling ship to take him across the Pacific. His determination was unshakeable. He bought a rickety old wagon, hired a driver, packed a good supply of tea, medicine and brandy – and trundled off into the frozen wilderness with “a feeling of happy confidence” in his heart.

The journey, as predicted, was a horror show. Passenger and driver went for days eating nothing but bread. One week they faced subzero temperatures; the next they were in a swamp with gnats and mosquitoes feasting on their faces. When Holman heard the rattle of chains he knew his cart was passing another column of convicts being force-marched into Siberian exile.

The bone-rattling ride went on for 3,500 miles across some of the harshest, bleakest wilderness on the planet. Three months after leaving Moscow the bruised and frozen travellers arrived in Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia. And there, after initially being given a warm welcome, Holman was suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a spy - and whisked right back the way he’d just come.

It was a kind of nineteenth century extraordinary rendition. A shady character from the Tsar’s secret police appeared with orders to escort Holman out of Russia. The Englishman was plonked on a sledge and driven thousands of miles westwards at breakneck speed. It was no sleep till Poland. He was dumped at the border and told to cross it.

A baffled and bewildered Lieutenant Holman made his way home across Europe, arriving in Hull in June 1824. He’d been away two years and one day. His round-the-world jaunt had failed. But there was good news awaiting him: his European travel book was selling well. He was famous. He’d become the celebrated Blind Traveller.

After producing a second best seller about his Siberian adventure*, he was on the move again. And with royalties in the bank, he could now afford to attempt a round-the-world trip by sailing ship. He told the bigwigs at Windsor Castle he had to travel to the sun again for health reasons. Then, without a trace of irony, he sailed for West Africa – the white man’s grave.

He left on the HMS Eden, a Royal Navy frigate sent to establish a British settlement on the island of Fernando Po, just off Africa’s west coast. Unlike the mainland, Fernando Po was thought to be free of malaria, cleansed by a brisk sea breeze. The crew of HMS Eden expected to find a little tropical heaven. Instead they found hell.

Fever quickly ripped through the European settlement. Of the one hundred and thirty-five men who sailed on the Eden, just twelve would survive the expedition. Yet despite the appalling death toll, Holman stuck it out on that toxic little island for a year, helping his friend Captain Owen get a base up and running. And for once he had luck with his health: he made it out alive.

It was on Fernando Po that Holman grew a whopping great beard that he kept for the rest of his life. According to William Jerdan, it “would have done credit to the Chief Rabbi of the Jews”. And it was there that he met a young African woman who, unlike the ladies of Europe, let him touch more than just her face. “Perceiving that I did not immediately recognise her… [she] placed my hand on her bosom,” he tells us happily. “Her relatives and countrymen all laughed heartily and appeared to enjoy my astonishment much.”

Hitching a ride in a Dutch ship, he moved on to Brazil. And from there he began an astonishing series of sea voyages that would finally realise his round-the-world dream. South Africa, Zanzibar and Mauritius came first. Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Calcutta and Canton (now Guangzhou) followed. From China he headed to Australia. Then it was across the Pacific, round the tip of South America, back to Brazil, and home.

On boarding a new boat Holman would sometimes treat the crew to his little party trick: he’d clamber up the rigging, right to the very top, then shout and wave to the gobsmacked men below. If anyone was tempted to treat him like an invalid that usually put a stop to it. And when he went exploring on land he made a point of behaving exactly like a man who’d never lost his sight.

In Brazil he accepted an invitation to inspect a gold mine (he didn’t bother bringing a lantern). In South Africa he taught himself to ride a horse and went off into the wilds with a young African sidekick who didn’t speak English. In Ceylon he took part in an elephant hunt. He crossed Zanzibar and Tasmania on foot. And in China he toked on an opium pipe.

It wasn’t all plain sailing: he was assaulted by a swarm of wasps, he was thrown from a horse, and his rheumatism sometimes crippled him. But he always pressed on, patiently and tenaciously, still wearing his old naval uniform and carrying his stick. He relied, he says, on “divine protection and on the sympathies of mankind”. And they didn’t let him down: in five years circling the globe he was never once ripped off or robbed.

The Blind Traveller got back to England in 1832 and set to work on his third book, “A Voyage round the World, including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America &, from 1827 to 1832”. But it was less well received than his previous efforts. The novelty of a sightless sightseer was wearing thin. The inspirational adventurer had somehow become a bit of a joke.

It was eight years before he got to travel again. In 1840, Holman (now fifty-four) once again set out alone and on a shoestring, this time for the Mediterranean and Middle East. He visited Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Syria and the Holy Land. He passed through Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. He went up into Bosnia, Montenegro and Hungary. He was gone six years. And by the time he got back, he was pretty much forgotten. No one was interested in even publishing his account of that last epic journey, the swansong of the most travelled man of all time.

This is bizarre. According to his biographer, Jason Roberts, Holman had now clocked up a staggering quarter of a million miles. “None could even approach the achievements of the Blind Traveller…” writes Roberts in “A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveller”. “Alone, sightless, with no prior command of native languages and with only a wisp of funds, he had forged a path equivalent to wandering to the moon.”

James Holman lived out his remaining years in east London, down by the docks. It was a dodgy part of town, full of sailors’ pubs and brothels. No place for a gentleman. But it was the ideal spot for a sick, old, white-bearded wanderer who now needed the sounds and smells of the world to come to him.

The Blind Traveller died on 28 July, 1857, aged seventy. A week before his death he finished work on his autobiography. No one was interested in publishing that either. The manuscript has now been lost.

*FOOTNOTE 1: Holman’s first book was snappily entitled, “The Narrative of a Journey, Undertaken in the Years 1819, 1820 & 1821, Through France, Italy, Savoy, Switzerland, Parts of Germany Bordering the Rhine, Holland, and The Netherlands”.

*FOOTNOTE 2: Another memorable title: “Travels through Russia, Siberia, Poland, Austria, Saxony, Prussia, Hanover & & Undertaken During the Years 1822, 1823 and 1824, While Suffering from Total Blindness and Comprising an Account of the Author being Conducted a State Prisoner from the Eastern Parts of Siberia”.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Roberts, Jason, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveller (London, 2006)
Jerdan, William, Men I Have Known (1866)
Keay, John, Eccentric Travellers (London, 1982)