Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham (1902-1986), raised by her pioneer father in Africa, trained race horses, worked as a bush pilot, and was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, from east to west.

Beryl Markham was born in Ashwell, Leicestershire County, England on October 26, 1902. Her parents, Charles and Clara Clutterbuck, were English gentry who kept horses and won prizes locally for their skill in the sport of fox hunting. Her father moved the family to Njoro, Kenya (then British East Africa) to establish a farm. Beryl was three when the family moved into a traditional African mud hut. Her mother attempted pioneer life for a year before returning to England with Beryl's brother, who was old enough to require formal education. Beryl stayed in Africa with her father.

Neighboring tribesmen provided care for Beryl while her father worked the farm. As a result, she spoke Swahili like a native. She became friendly with Kibii, a boy of the tribe. Beryl's father trained them both to ride horses like cavalry cadets, while Kiibi's father trained them to hunt and track. Because of her unique status in the tribe, Beryl was allowed to train as an equal in games of skill with the boys. One of these games was to jump as high as one's own height. When Beryl reached her full height, she was nearly six feet tall.

Errol Trzebinski, in The Lives of Beryl Markham, wrote "All Beryl cared about was competing with Kibii. She could hurl a spear just as well as Kibii, with deadly accuracy. She had learned to straighten her arm in a backward arabesque, as if to hurl a javelin, sending out a thrust to impale. The grace, the strength of her backward stretched arm manifested all the simplicity and ease of a cave painting. Africa is many things to many people of many races, but a child nurtured on its red inhospitable soil carries those lessons forever."

In a few years, when the farm was settled and a western-style house had been built, Beryl's father brought in tutors for her formal education. During World War I, she was sent away to a proper English school in Nairobi, but she felt out of place there. After three years she was expelled from school and she returned to her father's farm at Njoro. When she was 16, Beryl married Jock Purves. The marriage was not successful and ended in divorce three years later.


Trained Racehorses

The British who settled in Kenya brought their customs with them, and horse racing was a popular sport. In addition to farming, her father imported and trained thoroughbred English racehorses. He kept over 100 horses in his stables. From early on Beryl had worked in the stables and exercised the horses. Her skill at handling them became legendary. After the war, her father lost the farm and moved to Peru to train horses.

At the age of 19, Beryl began her career as a professional racehorse trainer. She was the first woman ever to be granted a trainer's license in Kenya. She started with some horses given to her by her father, then hired a jockey, and rented a stable. After her horses won a few of the smaller races, owners began to send their horses to her to train. A friend loaned her a string of stables and a hut to live in. She produced winners and by the age of 24. In 1926, her horse, Wise Child, won the prestigious St. Leger.

In 1927, Beryl married a wealthy young aristocrat, Mansfield Markham, who had come to Kenya for a safari. Two years later, the young couple had a son, Gervase, named after an ancestor of Beryl who also trained horses. They divorced that year, and Gervase stayed with his father's family in England.


A Passion for Flying

In Straight On Till Morning Mary S. Lovell quoted Markham in a discussion about her early aviation experience: "Distances are long and life is rather lonely in East Africa. The advent of airplanes seemed to open up a new life for us. The urge was strong in me to become part of that life, to make it my life. So I went down to the airport. How zealously did I enter up my hours in my logbook. That book is more precious to me than any diary."

Markham began flying lessons with Tom Campbell Black. In a few months she bought her own airplane, an Avion IV, with a plan to operate an air charter service. On April 24, 1931 she flew from Kenya—crossing the desert and the sea, navigating by sight, stopping along the way for engine repairs—to England. Her unexpected arrival at Heston Aerodrome on May 17 made news.

Upon returning to Kenya, Markham prepared for the commercial pilot exam, which involved stripping an engine, cleaning jets and filters, changing plugs and points, and a written test on the theory and practice of air law and navigation. Markham became the first Kenyan-trained pilot to obtain a commercial pilots license.

In her small plane Markham flew vast distances over unpopulated territory, solo, with only a compass and maps for navigation. She was contracted to deliver mail and supplies to camps of a thousand gold miners living in tents at locations so remote that a forced landing along the way could mean death from thirst. Markham provided a taxi service to distant farms and a messenger service for safari parties and took hunters from bush camps in search of game. She delivered medical supplies and doctors to emergency cases. Markham was called upon to fly accident victims and critically ill patients to the hospital in Nairobi. She also worked as a relief pilot for East African Airways.


Crossed the Atlantic

When Markham expressed interest in entering the air race at Johannesburg, a fellow pilot offered to provide her with a new plane, on one condition: she must successfully cross the Atlantic—east to west, against the headwinds. The flight had been attempted, but not yet accomplished. Markham accepted the challenge. In a letter to London's Daily Express Markham wrote, "Two weeks from now I am going to set out to fly the Atlantic to New York. Not as a society girl. Not as a woman even. And certainly not as a stunt aviator. But as a pilot-graduate of one of the hardest schools of flying known, with 2000 flying hours to my credit. The only thing that really counts is whether one can fly." Her flight was postponed for three days to wait for weather to clear for take off. In an interview with a Daily Express correspondent Markham said, "If I get across, it will have been worth it because I believe in the future of an Atlantic air service. I planned this flight because I wanted to be in that air service. If I get across I think I shall have earned my place."

On September 4, 1936, Markham took off despite bad weather. Her flight lasted 21 hours in constant fog, rain, and sleet. Markham's plane, The Messenger, crash landed in a peat bog on the coast of Nova Scotia. Her only injury was a gash on her forehead when the plane skidded into a boulder and went nose up. Markham's historic flight made newspapers headlines. The next day in New York, she was greeted by thousands of cheering fans. However tragedy struck two weeks later. Tom Campbell Black, her instructor and friend, who prepared her for the Atlantic flight, died in an airfield accident.

Markham declined the routine flying jobs she was offered in England and instead found backers and entered flying races. She struck a deal with one backer to fly around the world and went to America in search of an engine that would go 200 miles per hour. Markham was in California when Amelia Earhart made her second, and final, attempt to fly around the world at the equator. In Hollywood, Columbia Pictures approached Markham about making a movie of her Atlantic crossing. Markham was interested, but the movie was never made. She did work on the set of a movie about Africa as a technical advisor on the Swahili language. At the start of World War II, Markham joined the Civil Air Patrol and flew lookout along the California coast.


West With the Night

In Hollywood, Markham met Antoine de Saint-Exupery. A Frenchman, who had flown mail routes from France to Africa, Saint-Exupery had written books about his flying adventures. He encouraged Markham to write about her life. In 1941, she took an outline of her memoir to a publisher in New York, then traveled to the Bahamas to write it. Markham produced a collection of stories, and sent them off in batches to her publisher, Houghton Mifflin. The publisher was delighted with the work of this new writer. In 1942, West With the Night was published.

Markham had met Ernest Hemingway on safari in Kenya years earlier. When Hemingway discovered her book, he wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins about it: "Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West With the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. [She] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. I wish you would get it and read it because it really is a bloody wonderful book."

That year, Markham married Raoul Schumacher. They lived in a rented ranch in the foothills of California's Santa Ynez Mountains. Markham wrote short stories about her African adventures, which were published in American magazines. In 1947, the couple separated and their divorce became final in 1960. Controversy surrounded the couple when Schumacher claimed he wrote Markham's book.

Markham returned to Kenya to reestablish her career as a racehorse trainer. From 1958 to 1979, the horses she trained won dozens of classics and six times won the East African Derby, Kenya's top race.

In 1980, American restaurateur, George Gutekunst, read Hemingway's selected letters and was intrigued by the praise for Markham's book. Gutekunst found a copy of her book through a library system. With novelist Evan Connell, he instigated its re-publication by North Point Press. In 1983, critics called her book a lost masterpiece. It sold over a million copies. Gutekunst flew to Kenya to produce the television documentary World Without Walls, about Markham's life.

In 1984, Mary Lovell visited Markham to interview her for a biography, Straight On Till Morning. With the maps and log books in Markham's trunk, Lovell found manuscripts for the stories Markham had sold to magazines. She arranged for them to be published by North Point Press as a collection, The Splendid Outcast.

On August 3, 1986, Markham died in Nairobi, Kenya. Her ashes were scattered near the racetrack. In London, on September 4, 1986, the fiftieth anniversary of her Atlantic crossing, a memorial service was held in her honor.


Further Reading on Beryl Markham

Lovell, Mary S., Straight On Till Morning St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Markham, Beryl, The Splendid Outcast, North Point Press, 1987.

Markham, Beryl, West With the Night North Point Press, 1983.

Trzebinski, Errol, The Lives of Beryl Markham, W.W. Norton and Company, 1993.