Monday, March 30, 2015

The Blind Traveller in Tenerife

     When he arrived on the island of Tenerife in 1826, The Blind Traveller was forty four years old and already one of Britain’s most widely travelled personalities. But he was no ordinary voyager for James Holman, the fourth son of an English chemist from Exeter, was completely blind. He also suffered from debilitating pain and limited mobility. Nevertheless he was an adventurer in mind and spirit and like so many of his contemporaries with that typical stiff upper lip education, he forbade anything from weakening his resolve.

James Holman, The Blind Traveller, as a young man

     James Holman had entered the Royal Navy in 1798 just a year after Horatio Nelson suffered his only defeat at the hands of the Spanish garrison in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and was appointed lieutenant in 1807. But in 1810, whilst off the Americas on HMS Guerriere, a ship captured from the French, he was struck down by a strange disease which at first affected his joints and quite soon afterwards his sight. He became totally blind at the age of 25.

The American USS Constitution sinking HMS Guerriere - Painting by Michel Fernice Corne

     Having become ill during the course of his duty James Holman was appointed to the Naval Knights of Windsor and therefore provided with a lifetime grant of care in Windsor Castle. In exchange for this help which was available to British military personnel his only obligation was to go to church twice a day. Such inactivity made him restless and depressed and he asked for leave on the grounds of ill health, first to study medicine and literature at Edinburgh University and then to travel through Europe for two years in 1819. This was to become the first of The Blind Traveller’s incredible solo excursions abroad, during which he used a method of human echolocation, the ability to detect objects and shapes in their environment by sensing echoes from them, to describe what he perceived. Possibly an interesting example of fate if one considers he had volunteered for the Royal Navy in order to see the world.

     He had to be a man of notable energy and perseverance and was curious about absolutely everything. To begin with he travelled mostly alone, daring to go a bit further every time, and depended to a large extent upon his own astuteness as well as the kindness of ordinary folk. His journeys took him from France to Syria and Turkey and from Italy and Switzerland through to Russia and Siberia, where he was actually arrested on suspicion of being a spy! He even travelled in Africa and as far as Australia.

     When his ship anchored in the bay off Santa Cruz James Holman expected to be met by Mr Gilbert Bruce, the British Consul General. However Mr Bruce was away in England and so it was the new Consul, Mr Francis Coleman Macgregor, who went to the port to welcome him. In fact this worked out rather well. Not only had they met before but Mr. Macgregor who had recently been appointed Consul to the Canary Islands, was just as eager to learn about Tenerife and its inhabitants.

Ships at anchor in the bay off Santa Cruz

     Although Holman journeyed mainly on his own, he would never turn down the companionship of a fellow traveller. What he could not feel or sense, his companion would describe. The population in Santa Cruz was only about 6,000 people in 1826 and he wrote about the streets being rather empty and lifeless. In the heat of mid-day that would not have been unusual. The road to La Laguna he found in a deplorable state, rocky, dusty and dirty. 

The dusty road from Santa Cruz to La Laguna

     It was in La Orotava that he really encountered the colourful charm of the tinerfeño, feeling a vibrant commercial buzz mingled with the people’s open and warm nature.  Like so many visitors, James Holman was evidently touched by the islander's uninhibited generosity and how curious that even a blind man could appreciate the Canary Island women as being extremely beautiful, with black eyes that made them even more attractive.

The colours The Blind Traveller could only imagine - Ella Du Cane's Santo Domingo Convent and Church - La Orotava

     In recent years one of the principal complaints made by older visitors and local people alike has been that the island of Tenerife has been overcome by reckless construction and an overpopulation of about one million inhabitants. So it is interesting to know that even as long ago as the early 19th century a blind man sensed there were too many people on the island and remarked upon the need for islanders to emigrate. His observation was made when the population in Tenerife was only 80,000. He also remarked at how remote the islanders were despite being so close to the continent. One can´t imagine what James Holman, who came to Tenerife when travel was certainly more adventurous but possibly gentler, would feel if he visited the island today with its busy airports ferrying in five million tourists every year!

Like Holman, traditional fishermen today refuse to be defeated

     Holman noted that most islanders in 1826 lived from agriculture and fishing and referred to a land of palms, fig trees, vineyards, sugar cane, lemons and oranges. He must have felt a considerable echo from the majestic examples of Canary Pine, the pinus canariensis, because he wrote most enthusiastically about it. He also found the wines quite exquisite.

     Some of his observations might seem a touch eccentric, but one has to understand that any minute detail can be of enormous significance to a blind person.  Holman mentioned the fact that there were a lot of camels used for transport and that everyone seemed to smoke, complaining nevertheless that it was difficult to find any cigars! He remarked upon ice-sellers, men who made a living offering ice which they brought down from Mount Teide, sometimes offering it to travellers stirred in refreshing, squeezed lemon juice.

     His reference to traditional fiestas is particularly revealing. In his book Travels in Madeira, Sierra Leone, Teneriffe, St. Jago, Cape Coast, Fernando Po, and Prince´s Island, he pays special tribute to the custom of the Piñata, possibly because it alluded to the instinct and perception of blinded people. Today it is a favourite at birthday parties when blindfolded children take turns to beat a decorated bag, the piñata, which hangs full of surprises and gifts from a tree. 

Children taking turns to beat the piñata - a custom believed to have been introduced from China in the times of Marco Polo

     What James Holman described were blindfolded young men doing much the same to a bag containing gifts. The men would then race to gather the contents which spilled out of the broken bag and offer the gift they were able to retrieve to their chosen lady or novia. How he must have wished to have beaten a piñata and received the gift in the form of a miracle. An interesting subject for the student of psychology…….a blind man observing blindfolded men at play.

(Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

By John Reid Young
Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales, a collection of short stories.