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  • The "Deaf Traveller," the "Blind Traveller," and Constructions of Disability in Nineteenth-Century Travel Writing
  • Eitan Bar-Yosef (bio)

In 1833, the Penny Magazine published a series of articles about eastern travel. The theme was standard, but its heading was not: entitled "The Deaf Traveller," the articles were written by John Kitto (1804-1854), the son of a Cornish stonemason. In 1817, carrying slates up to the roof for his father, young Kitto fell off the ladder, an accident which left him totally deaf. After spending several years in the workhouse, Kitto became a missionary in Malta, joined an expedition to Persia, and eventually became a tutor for two English boys in Baghdad (they addressed him in finger alphabet, and he spoke back). Upon his return to England, he began publishing essays and reviews, gradually making a name for himself as a writer specializing in popular accounts of biblical studies.1

The title of Kitto's series was eye-catching, yet, as many readers in the 1830s would have instantly recognized, the "Deaf Traveller" merely followed in the footsteps of a more celebrated voyager: James Holman, known as the "Blind Traveller" (1786-1857). Born in Exeter, the son of an apothecary, Lieutenant Holman lost his eyesight at the age of twenty-five while serving in the Royal Navy. Despite his blindness, he embarked on an ambitious succession of tours around the world, publishing several successful travel accounts in the 1820s and 1830s.2

Although there is no indication that the two men ever met in person, Kitto's work often referred to Holman's experiences. Their first textual encounter occurred in 1834, when Kitto was commissioned by Charles Knight (the publisher who initiated the "Deaf Traveller" articles) to review Holman's mammoth four-volume A Voyage Round the World for one of his educational publications. "Mr Knight gave me that job," Kitto explained, "because he saw a peculiar fitness in a deaf traveller reviewing a blind one" (Ryland 364). Recalling the episode in his autobiography, Knight revelled in the fact that "the world is to be now indebted to two Devonshire men for the information it is to receive of distant countries. The one a blind man (Lieut. Holman), who is to publish what he has seen in his progress round the world. And (John Kitto) a deaf man, of what he has heard in Persia!" (2: 187).

Holman and Kitto were neither the first nor the last disabled travel writers. Accounts by travellers with disabilities could be said to form a distinct [End Page 133] (though hardly substantial) sub-genre of current travel literature. Books such as John Foster Wilson's Travelling Blind (1963), Bill Irwin's Blind Courage (1993), and Nicola Naylor's Jasmine and Arnica (2001) depict, thoroughly and candidly, the experiences of blind travellers. In all these cases, the impairment and its effect on the journey are filtered through familiar generic tropes: the British administrator exploring postcolonial Africa (Wilson), the new-age search for "India" (Naylor), or the extreme mountaineering adventure (Irwin).3

Despite this body of writing, however, and despite the burgeoning interest in both Disability Studies and travel literature, little has been said about disabled travellers. Scholars have recently shown how gender, class, and race have shaped travel, but how does disability affect the journey and its textual construction? And what do these narratives tell us about notions of disability, normalcy, and travel?

Victorians were particularly invested in these questions. It seems no coincidence that both the "Blind Traveller" and the "Deaf Traveller"—as cultural and literary icons—surfaced in the early decades of the nineteenth century, a period which saw the emergence of two parallel phenomena reflecting new ways of thinking about bodies and mobility. The first was the institutionalization of travel and the expansion of modern tourism; the second was the growing affinity between statistical science and eugenic concerns, both of which shaped the idea of "disability" (Davis 25-38; Rodas 373). If, as Martha Stoddard Holmes has observed in her immensely useful study of Victorian disability, "'afflicted' and 'defective' bodies permeated not only the plots of popular literature and drama but also published debates about heredity, health, education, work, and welfare...


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