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Beryl Markham stepping out of her plane in the 1930s

Photo: Trustees of the Royal Air Force Museum »

(I am going)

Abandoned by her mother when she is four, Beryl Markham grows up in British East Africa the wild and beautiful tomboy daughter of an English father. He teaches her to read the classics and to breed and train horses. On their farm she becomes the adopted daughter of African tribesmen, who teach her how to hunt and survive in the Great Rift Valley. When her father loses all his money honouring a contract during a drought, and loses the farm, Beryl leaves home with just two saddlebags and her horse. She is nineteen.

Concealing her fear and loneliness, Beryl rides into the exclusively male world of British horse breeders and trainers in Africa. She manages to be dashing, brilliant, and competitive, and builds a winning stable. In the words of the Africans, she becomes Memsahib wa Farasi, the Lady of the Horses. But after nine years, a marriage and a son, she is called into the air. In the early 1930s Denys Finch Hatton took Beryl up in his plane and invited her to change her life. With the utmost bravery and competence, she responded.

Into the African air

It might be worth a short detour to describe Finch Hatton since men are shaped by women and women are shaped by men -

Did the sun always shine at Eton in those days? Or was it only that, when Denys was there, it seemed to shine? Anyway, that is how one always sees him – in full sunshine, crossing the street to the wall, with his peculiar slouching, rolling gait, half gamin and half seraph. His hat is tilted back, forehead quizzically wrinkled, eyebrows raised, eyes dancing with amusement, and his queer, wide flexible mouth curling at the corners in that enchanting smile (Eton College Chronicle).

He was neither selfish nor self-centred, yet he seemed always to do everything that he wanted to do and never to do anything that he did not want. Anyone else, leading such a life, would have deteriorated; he remained considerate, sympathetic, humorous, cultured, and always had time somehow to spend in small acts of kindness for most unlikely people of any age or type. He was an ideal companion at the Russian Ballet or at a game of chess, while, of course, in times of difficulty or danger in the open air he was obviously supreme, the direct, ready master of the situation. . . He was a skilful mechanic and a lover of poetry and music; he had a wide and first-hand knowledge of birds and animals, and he was a shrewd observer of his fellow men and women. He could talk for hours of native life and customs, in which he was deeply interested, and his knowledge and experience of the people and country and his intensely practical schemes have already been of great service to the Government (Times).

Flying with Finch Hatton, Beryl sees Africa as she never has before. She falls in love with Africa from the air, with the experience of flying, and perhaps with her irresistible but elusive pilot.

These early planes frequently tumbled out of the sky due to a mechanical difficulty. Not long afterwards, Denys went up in his plane, which stalled, and crashed, killing him.

Most people would have hesitated to fly after that, but Beryl became determined to learn how to pilot a plane. She masters the controls and navigation, learns how to land in the bush and how to strip a plane engine, and gains a commercial license. Her sorties as a pilot are thrilling and, on occasion, hilarious. She flies a quarter of a million miles across Africa, delivering mail, hunters, and medical supplies. "I have lifted my plane from the Nairobi airport for perhaps a thousand flights and I have never felt her wheels glide from the earth into the air without knowing the uncertainty and the exhilaration of firstborn adventure."

Across the Atlantic

Five years after she learns to fly, she accepts the challenge of flying solo across the Atlantic, though the London businessman putting up the money cheerfully tells her, "I wouldn't tackle it for a million." Several pilots, battling prevailing headwinds, have already perished in the attempt.

Beryl relies on her nerve, her strength, and her uncanny ability to navigate. Whispering “twende tu,” she sets off in the Messenger, a Vega, VP-KCC, on September 4, 1936, and flies straight into a storm. Keeping the plane on course and out of the waves is a lonely, desperate struggle. Twenty-one hours later, barely evading death due to iced over fuel lines, she crash-lands in Nova Scotia. She expects obloquy, and instead receives a triumphant welcome in Halifax and New York as the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic from the east unto the west. Like an African hunter who can survive any disaster, she has landed on her feet once again and at the age of thirty-four, finds new game in America – a husband who is a writer.

The writer herself

Her disheveled private life wins her no prizes for marital or parental virtues, but her success at doing what she wanted to do in a world decidedly defined by men will inspire generations of girls. In her last transformation Beryl becomes the author of one remarkable volume, West with the Night, and returns to Africa. “Bloody wonderful,” said Ernest Hemingway about the book, impressed by both the beauty of the language and her autobiographical experiences.

The descriptions of horse races, African country, and disaster are breathtaking, poignant, and witty. Among many other examples in her book is this description of finding a British pilot half-dead in the middle of the Serengeti Plain:

[He] was sitting upright on the ground, his face skinny beneath a dirty beard, his lips cinder-dry and split, his eyes red-rimmed and sunk in his cheeks. He was a sick man and he was grinning. "I resent being treated like a corpse," he said. "It's insulting. Is there anything to eat?"

It has been argued that Beryl's third husband wrote West with the Night.


He could not write it unless she told him the story, and the story is indisputably her life.



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