Beryl Markham

adventurer writer aviator

I am embarrassed to admit I only knew Beryl as a gin soaked, short tempered old woman, in the early nineteen eighties. As young boys we were dragged along with Dad to visit her at home by the Racecourse, and after the initial formalities of sitting still and politely making small talk, Dad and Beryl would get lost in their passionate discourse on racehorse breeding, and we would be released to make our own mischief outside.

It was only after her death that I picked up a copy of her autobiography and was completely enchanted by her words, her adventures, her views on the continent I already loved. A romanticized parallel to my own barefoot childhood in Njoro had me hooked from the start.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just “home”. It is all these things but one thing – it is never dull.”

When Beryl was four years old, she moved with her father to British East Africa. He developed a racehorse stud in Njoro, where Beryl spent an adventurous childhood learning, playing, and hunting with the local African children. She grew into an impossibly wild, some would say feral, teenager. Unable to cope with this rather improper onslaught of teenage femininity, her father built her a beautiful cottage in the bottom of his garden. He eventually left East Africa and emigrated to Peru, and left a 17 year old Beryl to fend for herself as a budding race horse trainer.

Here was an adventurous, beautiful, independent thinking, erudite girl, unafraid of the African wilds, who could ride a horse, shoot, track, survive, speak several tribal languages. Athena in her earthly form. Of course every young man who came to Africa to test his mettle and machismo fell head over heels in love with this wild creature who epitomized every ideal and strength of character they aspired to develop in their own souls. Beryl was admired and described as a noted non-conformist, even in a colony known for its colourful eccentrics. She had a public affair in 1929 with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the son of King George V, but the Windsor’s allegedly cut the romance short.

Inspired and coached by British aviator Tom Campbell Black, Beryl learned to fly through the early 1930’s. She worked for some time as a bush pilot, delivering mail, and spotting game animals from the air and signaling their locations to safaris on the ground.

She befriended the Danish writer Karen Blixen during the years that Baroness Blixen was managing her family’s coffee farm in the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi. When Blixen’s romantic connection with the hunter and pilot Denys Finch Hatton was winding down, Markham started her own affair with him. He invited her to tour game lands on what turned out to be his fatal flight, but Beryl had supposedly declined because of a bad premonition.

She was married three times, taking the name Markham from her second husband, the wealthy Mansfield Markham, with whom she had a son, Gervase.

Always seeking out new challenges and adventure, Beryl decided to attempt a non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, against the prevailing winds. A challenge that had ended the lives of several aviators before her. On 4 September 1936, Beryl took off from Abingdon, southern England. After a 20-hour flight, her Percival Vega Gull monoplane, The Messenger, suffered fuel starvation from icing up of the fuel tank vents, and she crash-landed at Baleine Cove on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. She became the first person to make it from England to North America and was celebrated as an aviation pioneer.

Markham chronicled her many adventures in her memoir, West with the Night, published in 1942. Despite strong reviews in the press, the book sold modestly, and then quickly went out of print. I don’t know why, its beautiful:

”One night I stood there and watched an aeroplane invade the stronghold of the stars. It flew high; it blotted some of them out; it trembled their flames like a hand swept over a company of candles.”

After living for many years in the United States, Markham moved back to Kenya in 1952, becoming for a time the most successful horse trainer in the country. Her horses won the Kenya Derby a record six times. She lived a simple life and spent all she earned on her horses and gin.

In 1982 a Californian restaurateur read about her autobiography in a letter by Ernest Hemmingway who wrote:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West With the Night? She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

He tracked down a copy, took it to a literary friend and had it successfully republished. It was a huge hit, and provided enough income for Beryl to splash out over her last four years and live in relative comfort. She was a celebrity in the limelight again, and an award-winning documentary was made about her. Beryl died in Nairobi in 1986.