Historical Figures

Beryl Markham, adventurer and aviation pioneer

English-born Kenyan aviation pioneer, Beryl Markham (1902 – 1986) was the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean alone from east to west, a journey much more dangerous than the reverse because of the strong winds. A woman of strong character, she is also known for her book about her memoirs, Towards the West with the night .

Impetuous and indomitable

The second child of Clara Agnes Alexander Clutterbuck and Charles Baldwin Clutterbuck, Beryl was born on October 26, 1902 in the small village of Ashwell, in the heart of England. When the child was four years old, his father decided to settle his family in British East Africa, on lands of the British colonial empire in what is now Kenya. He buys a farm in Njoro, near Nakuru and the Great Rift Valley. The little girl liked it but her mother could not bear the isolation of this new life and quickly returned to live in England with her eldest son, Richard. Beryl will never fully forgive this abandonment to her mother, developing a much deeper relationship with her father.

Beryl grew up in the heart of the African wilderness, enjoying immense freedom to explore the surroundings and befriend the neighboring tribes. She learns to take care of horses, to speak the languages ​​of her neighbors and to hunt. Her impetuous and indomitable character has her expelled from a private school in Nairobi, and Beryl prefers to devote herself to horse racing and the care of horses. At a very young age, she became the first licensed racehorse trainer in Kenya, and participated in many races herself.

Intelligent and beautiful, Beryl likes to seduce more than commitment. She married her first husband at the age of sixteen; she married three times, and she was credited with many relationships. In her second marriage, she married the film producer Mansfield Markham, whose name she took. His infidelities, and the affair attributed to him in particular with Prince Henry of Gloucester, of the British royal family, quickly put an end to the marriage. Their son Gervase will be raised by Beryl's mother.

The transatlantic flight

Encouraged by aviator Tom Campbell Black, with whom she had an affair, Beryl Markham embarked on aviation. First woman to obtain her commercial pilot's license, she works in the transport of people, mail or goods; at the same time, she embarked on the preparation of a transatlantic expedition from east to west. The feat, particularly dangerous because it involves flying into powerful winds high above the ocean, was performed by Scottish aviator Jim Mollison, and female pilots have died trying it. In 1936, no one had yet made the flight Europe – New York, and no woman had crossed the Atlantic in its most perilous direction. Beryl wants to be a pioneer on these two points.

On September 4, 1936, Beryl took off from Abingdon, England, in a single-engine Percival Vega Gull. After 20 hours of flight, she ran out of fuel due to the cold weather which damaged her tanks and crashed in Nova Scotia, Canada, but escaped unscathed. Failing to reach New York, she nevertheless became the first woman to cross the Atlantic from east to west. The feat made her one of the pioneers of aviation, alongside Amelia Earhart and Hélène Boucher.

Towards the West with the night

After her feat, Beryl Markham moved to the United States for a while. There she met Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, with whom she became friends and who encouraged her to write. Back from her passion for aviation, the young woman embarked on this new adventure. In 1942, she published the story of her flying adventures in West with the Night (Westward with the night ). Although acclaimed by the press for its writing skills, the book only had moderate success. It would be rediscovered and republished in the 1980s, with more success this time. Beryl would write no more books, and some experts believe her memoirs may have been written by her third husband, Raoul Schumacher.

In 1952, Beryl left the United States to return to settle in Kenya, where she witnessed the country gaining independence. Once again becoming a horse trainer, she struggles to make ends meet. When her book appeared again in 1982, she lived in poverty and the success he met with was a providential help to her.

Beryl Markham died three years after the success of her memoir, on August 3, 1986, at the age of 83.