Women’s History Month: March
Aviators, Educators, Inventors, Journalists, Nurses, Physicians, Scientists, and Soldiers
“History is herstory, too.” ~Anonymous
Beryl Clutterbuck Markham (1902-1986) was second of two children born in England to Charles Baldwin Clutterbuck and his wife, Clara Agnes Alexander. Beryl was little more than a toddler when her father moved the family to Kenya (then British East Africa). Mom didn’t stay. Beryl did. She enjoyed an idyllic childhood on the family farm near the Great Rift Valley and, because her dad bred English racehorses and kept over one hundred in his stables, it was only natural she should acquire a knowledge of horses and become the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya.
Without a mother’s guiding hand, Beryl grew up curious, independent, and self-governed. And with little schooling. Yes, some private tutors and a couple of years in an English school in Nairobi before she was expelled. But mostly she learned the world around her. She spoke Swahili like a native and could hurl a spear with deadly accuracy. Too young, age sixteen (1918), she married Jock Purves; they divorced three years later (1921)—she was nineteen. At age twenty-five (1927) she married Mansfield Markham, a rich Englishman who had come to Kenya on safari; she took his surname. The couple had a son, Gervase (1929), and within months divorced. The child stayed with the paternal family in England.
Perhaps because they both lived in Kenya at the time, Beryl was a friend of the Danish writer Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), then managing a coffee farm in the Ngong hills outside Nairobi. Beryl also knew Denys Finch Hatton and, like him, was interested in flying. She bought her own plane, flew from Kenya to England (1931), across desert and sea, navigating by compass, map, and sight. Her unexpected arrival made news. She then returned to Kenya, prepared for the exam, and became the first Kenyan-trained pilot to obtain a commercial pilots license. Afterward she flew airmail for the government; rescued the wounded in the backcountry; and worked as a bush pilot, spotting game animals from the air and signaling the location to rich hunters on safari.
When Beryl made the decision to undertake a transatlantic flight, no one had ever flown the Atlantic east to west solo nonstop. She has been called the first person to do it, but actually Scottish pilot Jim Mollison flew (1932) from Dublin, Ireland, to New Brunswick, Canada. The title technically goes to him—not her. Still Beryl was the first woman to fly the Atlantic east to west (1936)—from Abingdon, England to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—and she was the first person to do it from England to North America. Of course, as anyone knows who has ever flown from London to New York, the westbound is rougher than the eastbound flight because the plane is battling the prevailing wind.
In America Beryl met (1941) the French military reconnaissance pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince (1943). He had flown mail routes from France to Africa and had written about his adventures. He encouraged her to write. Beryl wrote a few short stories, which were published in American periodicals. She also chronicled her trans-Atlantic flight in her memoir, West With the Night (1942), which is considered a tour de force. Ernest Hemingway said it made him ashamed of everything he’d ever written. That same year (1942) she remarried, this time to Raoul Schumacher; they lived in California. Beryl, who was to spend years in America, joined the Civil Air Patrol (1942) and flew lookout along the California coast. Her friend Saint-Exupéry was also a journalist and attaché for Air France; he was killed (1944) on a wartime mission over the Mediterranean.
After the war Beryl’s dad lost his farm in Africa and moved to Peru. Beryl and her third husband separated (1947) and divorced (1960). She herself moved back to Kenya (1952) to train horses. Her horses won many races (1958-79); six times, Kenya’s top race, the East Africa Derby. Not long before her death, her book West With the Night experienced a revival (1983). She died in Nairobi in August; a month later, in London, on the golden anniversary of her Atlantic crossing, a memorial service was held in her honor.
“Take from the altars of the past the fire—not the ashes.” ~Jean Jaures
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee