West with the Night

views updated

West with the Night

by Beryl Markham


A memoir set mainly in British East Africa from the 1900s to 1936; published in 1942.


After coming of age in British East Africa, a young Englishwoman breaks new ground as a pilot, distinguishing herself as the first person leaving from England, to cross the North Atlantic from a westerly direction.

Events in History at the Time of the Memoir

The Memoir in Focus

For More Information

Born in Leicestershire, England, in 1902, Beryl Clutterbuck (later Markham) moved to Kenya with her family when she was three years old. Her father started a farm at Njoro, but discovered his true talent was in breeding and training horses for racetracks in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. Beryl spent most of her childhood on what turned into a horse farm, receiving little formal schooling but learning to speak several African dialects, such as Nandi, from the families employed by her father. As a playmate of Nandi children, Beryl also accompanied the Nandi on their hunts, learning to hunt wild game with a spear. Later, following in her father’s footsteps, Beryl established herself as a successful horse trainer in Nairobi; she married twice during that period—unsuccessfully to Jock Purves and Mansfield Markham, whose name she kept after they separated. In her late twenties, Markham learned to fly a plane, becoming the first woman in Kenya to receive a professional pilot’s license. She worked for several years as a bush pilot, transporting goods, mail, and people to the more remote regions of Africa, and also flew to locate big game for safaris. During the 1930s, Markham returned to England. In 1936 she took up the challenge to fly solo from London to New York, a risky enterprise that involved flying against prevailing winds. Although Markham came down somewhat short of the mark, crash-landing her plane into a peat bog in Nova Scotia, she survived the flight and became an instant celebrity. After the death of a close friend and fellow pilot, Markham lost interest in flying but she wrote about her achievement and her Kenyan childhood in West with the Night (1942). The memoir has been celebrated as both a lyrical depiction of her life in Kenya and an exciting account of her experience breaking new ground as an aviatrix.

Events in History at the Time of the Memoir

Settling British East Africa

During the late nineteenth century, Britain, along with France, Portugal, Germany, and Italy, engaged in a scramble for control of Africa. Spurred on by tiny Belgium’s establishment of the Congo Free State in 1879, Britain sent troops and missionaries into West Africa, subduing indigenous peoples by military force and religious conversion. In the 1880s, Britain explored and laid claim to territories in the East African interior as well. Germany had already made formidable inroads in the region; in 1885, after negotiating a deal with the sultan of Zanzibar, the nominal ruler over most of the East African coast, Germany established the German East Africa Company, which conducted trade and exploration through what is now Tanzania. Shortly thereafter, Britain’s dealings with the sultan bore fruit too; in 1887 the sultan leased the lands of what would become present-day Kenya to the Imperial British East Africa Company. True colonization, however, did not occur until 1895, when British East Africa became a protectorate under the direct control of the British government.

Between 1895 and 1914, a series of British military expeditions quelled the resistance of African peoples to colonial rule. The British government also constructed a railroad from Mombasa to Lake Victoria to connect the parts of present-day Kenya and increase their political control over the region; dubbed the“Lunatic Express” by detractors, the railroad, which was completed in 1901, cost British taxpayers almost 6 million pounds. To offset some of the expense, Charles Eliot, the governor of the Protectorate, recruited European settlers to develop the region and make the railroad economically viable. As an inducement, the British Foreign Office offered thousands of virgin acres to wealthy, socially prominent Europeans, such as Hugh Cholmondley, third Baron Delamere, hoping that others of similar birth and fortune would follow suit.

Markham’s own family was among those early settlers. Her father, Charles Clutterbuck, a former army officer of good family but little financial means, emigrated from England to South Africa in 1904, hoping to make a fortune as a farmer. Not long after arriving in South Africa, Clutterbuck learned of the opportunities to be found in British East Africa; so he headed for Nairobi, then only a settlement of tin-roofed shanties surrounding the railway station, where he met Lord Delamere and was hired as manager for Delamere’s farm in the Kenyan highlands. Delamere also offered Clutterbuck suggestions about several parcels of land for which he could apply. Clutterbuck eventually purchased 1,000 acres of land in the highlands at three rupees an acre, and, with the help of African laborers, started a farm that he called Green Hills. In late 1905, Clutterbuck’s wife, Clara, and their children, Richard and Beryl, joined him.

Upper-class settlers in East Africa gradually began to establish a comfortable lifestyle in the African bush. The town of Nairobi underwent a period of rapid development; hotels and private bungalows sprang up as more and more Europeans immigrated to East Africa. The rigors of the African climate and the isolation of the wilderness, however, took its toll on some settlers. Clutterbuck’s wife and son failed to adapt successfully to life in East Africa, returning to England in 1906. Beryl, however, remained with Clutterbuck in Africa and flourished. Paying tribute to her father and other early settlers who succeeded in carving a living out of Kenya, Markham later wrote,“The farm at Njoro [in the Kenyan highlands] was endless, but it was no farm at all until my father made it. He made it out of nothing and out of everything—the things of which all farms are made.... He made it out of labour and out of patience. He was no farmer. He bought the land because it was cheap and fertile, and because East Africa was new and you could feel the future of it under your feet” (Markham, West with the Night, p. 67).

The Kalenjin

Although Markham mentions several indigenous peoples of East Africa in her memoir, she writes most frequently of the Kipsigis and Nandi, with whom she had the most contact during her childhood years. Both peoples belong to what has become known, since the 1940s, as the Kalenjin (“I tell you”), a group living in the western highlands of Kenya in the Rift Valley Province. Mainly farmers and herders, the Kalenjin consists of not only the Kipsigis and Nandi but also the Tugen, the Pokot, the Elgeyo, and the Marakwet. Kalenjin culture, though comprised of all these subgroups, is notable for having two branches of ancient customs and values, one for each sex after initiation (circumcision). Men hunted, fought, and became“Morani” (warriors); women tended their homes and families. As the daughter of a British settler, Markham faced fewer restrictions than the Africans. They seemed to her to observe strict gender distinctions:“If the men of the Nandi were like unto stone, their women were like unto leaves of grass. They were shy and they were feminine and they did the things that women are meant to do, and they never hunted” (West with the Night, p. 77)

As a child, Markham played with Kibii, a Kalenjin boy, and participated in Morani hunts; her participation was probably permitted because she was white and British, the daughter of a sahib (European master). Whatever the reason, the Morani nicknamed her“Lakweit” (little girl), taught her how to use a spear and how to familiarize herself with the different ways of the game being hunted. The hunting incidents described in West with the Night provide much of the memoir’s excitement; however, the memoir is guilty of some inaccuracies. Markham’s two closest African friends, Kibii—later called Arap Ruta—and his father Arap Maina were actually Kipsigis, though Markham identifies them in the memoir as Nandi. While Kipsigis and Nandi both belong to the Kalenjin, some critics have speculated that Markham may have designated her friends as Nandi because of the Nandi’s more colorful reputation as warriors (Kipsigis were allied to the Nandi but theirs was a more pastoral lifestyle). During the 1890s the Nandi strongly resisted the imposition of British rule. They were forced to capitulate, however, after a series of British military expeditions in 1896, 1897, and 1905 resulted in major casualties among the Nandi.


Other dramatic episodes of West with the Night deal with Markham’s participation in safaris, or hunting expeditions; its vast supply of wild game remained one of East Africa’s key attractions for foreign visitors. After railroads came to Africa and major cities such as Nairobi appeared, wealthy hunters poured into Africa to participate in safaris. Conducting safaris became a very lucrative business; the wealthy hunters hired white guides to show them the region and often employed as many as 30 African porters to convey their food and equipment. Often the wealthiest hunters also brought cooks, gun-bearers, and other servants to provide them with“home comforts” in the African bush. The duration of safaris varied, with some of the longest lasting up to several months.

The success of a safari often depended on a skillful guide—one who knew the terrain intimately, spoke Swahili and perhaps other African dialects fluently, understood the habits of wild game, and knew how to interact smoothly with his clients as well as the indigenous peoples. One such guide was Denys Finch-Hatton, an English earl’s son, who had moved to British East Africa in 1912 and established a successful trading business. An avid sportsman, Finch-Hatton soon acquired worldwide fame as a professional leader of safaris, an enterprise he had started during the 1920s.

In West with the Night, Beryl Markham’s life intersects dramatically with that of Finch-Hatton. The two had known each other for several years and shared common interests, including hunting and flying. After learning to pilot a plane, Finch-Hatton became interested in using it in safaris. Markham writes,“Denys said he wanted to try something that had never been done before … to see if elephant could be scouted by plane; if they could, he thought, hunters would be willing to pay very well for the service” (West with the Night, p. 193). Markham, herself a pilot-in-training at the time, saw the possibilities in Finch-Hatton’s scheme and agreed to go with him on a trip to the town of Voi. The warning of another good friend, Tom Campbell Black, however, persuaded Markham to delay joining Finch-Hatton, who departed for Voi without her. Although Finch-Hatton’s elephant-scouting mission was successful, his plane crashed on the way back to Nairobi, killing Finch-Hatton and the African servant who had accompanied him. Remembering her deceased friend, Markham credits him with“a charm of intellect and strength, of quick intuition” and humor like that of the French writer Voltaire. Denys, she says,“would have greeted doomsday with a wink—and I think he did” (West with the Night, p. 192). After his death, Markham herself scouted game by plane, often in the company of Bror von Blixen, a Swedish baron, formerly married to writer Isak Dinesen, and a notable sportsman and organizer of safaris himself (see Out of Africa , also in Literature and Its Times).

Aviation and record-setting flights

Labored on over the centuries by inventors of various nations and patented in the early 1900s by American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, airplanes surely represented one of the foremost technological


Although Markham married three times and had several romantic involvements in her long life, her closest relationship may have been with Tom Campbell Black, the man who taught her to fly and with whom she remained close friends for the rest of their lives. Born in Brighton, England in 1898, Tom was educated at Brighton College and at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. During his schooldays, he acquired an interest in aviation and, after the First World War broke out, he immediately joined the Royal Naval Air Service, adding a year to his age to be accepted. Tom later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps; towards the end of the war, he led the first British squadron in the attack on Cologne, Germany. During the 1920s, Tom studied law for a time, then moved out to Kenya, where he and his brother started a coffee-farm at Rongai. But, flying being Tom’s passion, he eventually turned the farm over to a full-time manager and attained his commercial license as a pilot, going on to do freelance flying work. While opening air routes for mail deliveries in East Africa, Tom conceived of establishing a commercial air service there. With the barking of a wealthy widow, Florence Kerr Wilson, he founded Wilson Airways in 1929, for which he acted as managing director. Markham, who had known Tom on and off through the 1920s, became his pupil in 1931. For a time, the two were romantically involved, though they separated in 1933, after Tom took a new job in England. While abroad, he participated in and won an air race from London, England, to Melborne, Australia; he also fell in love with an English actress, Florence Desmond, whom he married in 1935. Markham was sufficiently distressed by the news of the upcoming nuptials in the press to send a cable to Tom with the following message:“DARLINC IS IT TRUE YOU ARE TO MARRY FLORENCE DESMOND? PLEASE ANSWER STOP HEARTBROKEN BERYL” (Markham in Lovell, p. 147). It is not known how this potentially volatile situation was resolved but Markham’s friendship with Tom apparently remained intact. The following year, shortly after Markham’s record-breaking flight from England to North America, Tom was killed when his plane, taxiing to a take-off position on the Liverpool Aerodrome, was struck by another incoming plane. Markham was devastated to learn of his death; over the years, she often told close friends that Tom had been the love of her life.

advances of the twentieth century. In 1903, the Wrights became the first to achieve flight in an aircraft of their own design, making four short flights in one day. The Wrights’ achievement sparked renewed interest among European inventors, who introduced further modifications and innovations to their own models of flying machines. Following the Wright brothers’ example, European aviators made their own daring trial flights. In 1907 the French-born Henri Farman became the first person to remain in the air for as long as the Wright brothers; the following year, Farman also became the first to complete a circular flight of one kilometer in Europe. In 1909 Frenchman Louis Bleriot made the first flight—37 minutes long—across the English Channel in the Bleriot XI, a monoplane of his own design. That same year the first great flying meet was held at Reims, France. In England, Alliot Verdón Roe built and tested a Wright-type model in 1908, then went on to design his own line of biplanes, including the often-used Avro 504 in 1913.

By 1913 the British War Office and the British Admiralty acknowledged the advanced state of the airplane and accepted it as“a potential weapon of significance” (Tangye, p. 24). The use of airplanes by both sides during the First World War, often as reconnaissance planes to scout out enemy positions, led to the rapid development of superior machines. Technological advancement of the airplane continued through the next two decades. This period is considered the golden age of aviation. With the backing of government-subsidized research and development programs, military and civilian aircraft increased in speed, range, altitude, and carrying capacity.

This period from 1919 to 1939 also marked the advent of record-setting long-distance flights. In 1919 the U.S. Navy Curtiss flying boat NC-4 made the first Atlantic crossing; John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown, the first nonstop Atlantic crossing; and the British airship R.34, the first round-trip Atlantic crossing. That same year Ross Smith made the first flight from London to Australia. More astonishing efforts followed in the 1920s and 1930s, including Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927. The American aviatrix Amelia Earhart, meanwhile, became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932 and the first ever to fly west to east from Honolulu to California in 1935. British aviatrix Amy Johnson flew from England to Australia in 1930; her husband Jim Mollison became the first to fly east to west across the Atlantic Ocean, soaring from Ireland to eastern Canada in 1932. Few pilots chose to cross the Atlantic east to west because it meant flying against the prevailing winds. In West with the Night, Markham describes how she decided to accept this challenge, with the backing of wealthy acquaintance John Carberry.“A number of pilots have flown the North Atlantic, west to east” he informs her.“Only Jim Mollison has done it alone the other way—from Ireland. Nobody has done it alone from England—man or woman. I’d be interested in that but nothing else… . I’ll furnish the plane and you fly the Atlantic—but, gee, I wouldn’t tackle it for a million. Think of all that black water! Think how cold it is!” (West with the Night, p. 279).

The Memoir in Focus

The contents

Beryl Markham’s memoir weaves back and forth in time, relating incidents from her earliest childhood in what is now Kenya to her adult experiences as a horse trainer and bush pilot. The structure of the work is episodic—a series of vividly rendered memories loosely strung together. Markham asks at the outset:“How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, ‘This is the place to start; there can be no other.’ But there are a hundred places to start” (West with the Night, p. 3).

The first incident Markham chooses to relate takes place in 1935, when she is a freelance bush pilot, working in Nairobi, Kenya. Markham’s mission is to fly a canister of oxygen to a sick miner in the village of Nungwe; arriving at her destination, she delivers the canister and spends some time talking with another patient, a German or Dutchman, who is dying of a disease known as blackwater. She is distracted, however, by the knowledge that a colleague and fellow pilot, named Wood, has been lost somewhere on the Serengetti Plains for the last two days. As soon as she can get away, Markham heads out to look for Wood herself, finally locating him—alive—after a long search by air. While Markham is settling Wood into her own plane, she encounters an African who used to work on her father’s farm. The two exchange greetings and reminiscences, remembering the time that Markham, as a child, was attacked by a lion. After their safe return, Markham and Wood discuss why they put up with all the dangers, hardships, and in-


Woven through Markham’s memoir are observations tinged with a reverence for Africa and its people that flew in the face of contrary images, which held it to be a less developed and therefore less worthy environment than any in Europe,

White men’s wars are fought on the edges of Africa… . Competitors in conquest have overlooked the vital soul of Africa herself… . Racial purity, true aristocracy, devolve … from the preservation of kinship with the elemental forces and purposes of life whose understanding is not farther beyond the mind of a Native shepherd than beyond the cultured fumblings of a mortar-board intelligence.

The soul of Africa, its integrity, the slow inexorable pulse of its life, is its own and of such singular rhythm that no outsider, unless steeped from childhood in its endless, even beat, can ever hope to experience it, except only as a bystander might experience a Masai war dance knowing nothing of its music nor the meanings of its steps.

The Serengetti plain … the great sanctuary of the Masai People .harbour more wild game than any similar territory in all of East Africa… . They are endless and they are empty, but they are as warm with life as the waters of a tropic sea.

[West with the Night, pp. 7, T3, 33)

conveniences of flying, and finally agree that life without flying“would all be so dull” (West with the Night, p. 53).

The autobiography then relates stories of Markham’s childhood. Having left England for British East Africa, Markham’s father builds a farm in the highlands at Njoro and then a mill; he also gains repute as a breeder and trainer of racehorses. The young Beryl spends her days roaming the valleys and forests, usually in the company of the Nandi Murani people; one of her closest friends is Kibii, a Nandi boy. Young Beryl experiences many adventures, including the previously mentioned attack by a neighbor’s pet lion, who has been allowed to roam free. Only the owner’s quick intervention prevents Beryl from being killed; the lion is subsequently caged for the remainder of his life. When Beryl is slightly older, she often joins the Nandi men on their hunts, a privilege denied the Nandi women. During one eventful hunt, the prey—a fierce warthog—attacks and badly mauls Beryl’s dog, Buller. Beryl kills the warthog with a spear. Afterwards, Arap Maina, a Morani hunter who is Beryl’s friend and Kibii’s father, comforts the child and helps her bring the dog home, where it eventually recovers. (The memoir misspells the name Arap Maina as Arab Maina.)

Beryl’s life changes with the coming of the First World War. In Africa, as in Europe, the men—English and native—leave to fight the Germans on the colonial frontier; Arap Maina is among those killed in the war. Beryl and Kibii grow slowly towards adulthood. As a teen, Beryl becomes more involved with her father’s horse-training business. In 1917 she helps a mare give birth and her father rewards her by allowing her to keep the foal, which Beryl names Pegasus. After the war, Beryl’s life undergoes further changes. Her father ends up selling his farm, house, stables, and horses to fulfill a mill contract with the government during a period of savage drought. He decides to leave Africa and start over again as a horse trainer in Peru, inviting 17-year-old Beryl to join him. Beryl opts instead to remain in Africa and try to become a horse trainer herself. Her father advises her to go north to Molo and work hard but not expect too much. Beryl sets out for Molo with only her horse, Pegasus, and two saddlebags of personal belongings.

Some time later, after acquiring her license as a trainer and setting up her own stable, Beryl is reunited with her childhood friend Kibii, now grown to manhood and called Arap Ruta. Several Africans who worked on the Njoro farm have already followed Beryl to Molo; Arap Ruta also wishes to offer his services. Beryl readily employs him and the two begin a successful working relationship. One day, while out riding, Beryl has a chance encounter with Tom Black, a motorist whose car has broken down by the roadside. The two strike up a conversation; Beryl learns that Tom, a pilot during the war, aspires to purchase an airplane. She listens to Tom’s vivid descriptions of flight but does not at that time recognize the door of opportunity that has been opened for her.

Meanwhile, Beryl’s reputation as a horse trainer grows. A filly trained by her stable wins a prestigious race in Nairobi, beating a colt Beryl had formerly trained but whose owner had moved him to another stable. Fate brings about another meeting with Tom Black, who has acquired a new airplane, with which he has carried out a daring rescue. Two men on safari had badly wounded a lion, then tried to photograph him; the wounded lion attacked, killing one man and mauling another, before being killed itself. Tom rescued the injured man, flying him and the cremated ashes of his dead companion back to Nairobi; Tom had lit the funeral pyre with a match, then stored the ashes in a biscuit tin to carry them back. Over coffee, Tom relays the adventure to Beryl.“Just remember,” he concludes,“never to fly without a match or a biscuit tin. And of course you’re going to fly. I’ve always known it. I could see it in the stars” (West with the Night, pp. 181-82). After some thought, Beryl behaves accordingly. She leaves her career as a horse-trainer and learns to fly. Arap Ruta supports the decision:“If it is to be that we must fly, Memsahib, then we will fly. At what hour of the morning do we begin?” (West with the Night, p. 182).

Tom Black undertakes Beryl’s flying lessons himself and proves to be an excellent teacher who hones her flyer’s instincts and recognizes her right to make mistakes. After 18 months, Beryl gains her pilot’s license and embarks upon her new career in Nairobi. Some time later, as a freelance pilot, she becomes involved with the safari set, including the famous English guide and hunter Denys Finch-Hatton. Beryl and Finch-Hatton become interested in the possibility of scouting elephant by plane; he invites her to fly down to Voi with him and explore the possibilities. On hearing of Finch-Hatton’s invitation, Tom Black advises Beryl to wait a day before accompanying the guide. Beryl reluctantly agrees, then receives the startling news that Finch-Hatton was killed in a plane crash on the way to Voi.

More changes occur

Tom leaves Africa for a job in England, Beryl’s father returns from Peru, Beryl purchases a farm of her own and continues her career as a freelance pilot, transporting mail and passengers. The profit to be made in scouting big game—especially elephant—by plane continues to attract Beryl. She soon acquires a companion in this often risky enterprise, a man she regards as the Great White Hunter, Baron Bror von Blixen (“Blix”). The pair have several adventures while locating elephant for safaris led by Winston Guest, a wealthy American client. At one point, Beryl and Blix are nearly attacked by an aggressive bull elephant, which backs off at the last minute. On another venture, Beryl and her plane rescue Blix and Winston who, along with their hunting party, are stranded on the Yatta Plateau when the rivers flood. Soon after this second incident, Beryl becomes restless and begins to wonder if she should introduce more changes in her life,“A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think” (West with the Night, p. 238). She proposes a scheme of flying to England from Africa, inviting Blix to join her.

After bidding farewell to her father and Arap Ruta, Beryl—with Blix—sets off on her flight in March 1936. In the course of their journey, during which they cross the Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and the Mediterranean Sea, they experience more adventures and some bureaucratic difficulties that delay their departure from North Africa. Reaching Bengazi, Libya, the travelers find all the accommodations occupied by the military. They are forced to spend the night in a filthy, vermin-ridden brothel. Touched by the sad life story of its procuress—she was kidnapped as a child and sold into prostitution—Blix leaves her some money. The journey resumes. While traveling from Cagliari, Italy, to Cannes, France, Beryl flies into a storm but ultimately lands safely at their destination. Beryl and Blix spend the night in Paris, France, and reach London, England, the next afternoon.

After several months in England, Beryl accepts another challenge. Record flights have been made over the North Atlantic Ocean, but always from west to east. According to John Carberry, one of Beryl’s wealthy acquaintances,“Only Jim Mollison has done it alone the other way—from Ireland. Nobody has done it alone from England—man or woman” (West with the Night, p. 279). With Carberry’s financial backing and a new plane—a Vega Gull—built especially for the occasion, Beryl undertakes the journey, leaving on September 4, 1936. Although many of Beryl’s friends and associates anticipate the worst possible outcome, she succeeds in crossing the North Atlantic from a westerly direction, despite strong headwinds and adverse weather conditions. During the last stage of the flight, a chunk of ice


In West with the Night, Markham mentions several models of airplane that she flew in Kenya and England. One of the most frequently used British models was the De Havilland Moth, a light plane designed by the De Havilland company for sale to the British public. Introduced in 1925, the D.H. 60—nicknamed the Moth—was powered by a four cylinder engine and boasted 60 horsepower. Three years later, the De Havilland Company developed an engine with more horsepower (100 hp) —the Gypsy—and installed it in a D.H. 60, thereafter known as the Gypsy Moth. This popular two-seater plane, often used for touring and sports, also became a favorite with long-distance pilots. Markham herself learned to fly in a Gypsy Moth. The model was much in demand; most planes purchased in England during the 1930s were in fact Moths produced by De Havilland. Another De Havilland model, the larger, three-seater Leopard Moth could carry two-passengers side by-side behind the pilot. It was a high-wing monoplane with a cruising speed of 120 miles per hour, which Markham would fly as well. But., despite their popularity in other areas, Moths were not the planes best suited to bush work; according to Markham’s instructor, the Avro Avian was. So Markham purchased a blue-and-silver Avro Avian IV, a two-seater with a 120 horsepower (De Havilland Gypsy II) engine, which served her well for years. For her transatlantic flight, however, she used neither an Avian nor a Moth. Instead she flew a Vega Gull, a two-passenger plane with a 200 horsepower De Havilland Gypsy VI) engine and a cruising speed of 163 miles per hour. The Gull had six fuel tanks —two in the wings, two in the center section of the plane, and two in the cabin—and no radio. Before Markham’s flight, Tom Black joked about the plane’s name. Knowing that her backer for the flight lived on a farm called“Place of Death’ and that the Gull was being built at a place called“Gravesend,” he suggested that she call the plane“The Flying Tombstone.” Instead Markham christened it“The Messenger.”

lodges in the plane’s petrol tank, choking off the fuel to the carburetor. Beryl makes a forced landing in a Newfoundland bog but survives with minor injuries—bruises and a gashed forehead. Found by a local fisherman, Beryl alerts the airport in Nova Scotia to her safe arrival, 21 hours and 25 minutes after her departure from England. Flying from Ireland to New Brunswick, Canada, had taken Jim Mollison over 31 hours.

Arriving at Floyd Bennett Field in New York, which was her original destination, Beryl receives a hero’s welcome from the press, but her triumph is overshadowed by terrible news from London: her friend and teacher Tom Black has been killed in an airfield accident. The memoir ends some months later, as Beryl travels by ship to visit her father, now living in South Africa. Unlike a plane, the freighter on which Beryl sails hardly seems to move:“She was old and weather-weary, and she had learned to let the world come round to her” (West with the Night, p. 294).

Women in aviation

In West with the Night, Markham frequently contends with the engrained prejudices against women that were characteristic of British and African culture at the time. Even in the African bush, the ideal woman was still passive and domestic, leaving the income earning to the men. During childhood, a Nandi girl expresses astonishment that the young Beryl dares to hunt with the men, remarking,“Your body is like mine … it is the same and is no stronger” (West with the Night, p. 78). On the hunt, Beryl must prove to be as strong and capable as any Nandi warrior. Later, as a female horse-trainer, she must again prove herself. Early in this career, she loses a prize colt because the owner decides that a young girl is incapable of providing the necessary finishing touches to make the horse a racing champion.

Six weeks before a major race in Nairobi, the newly licensed Markham reflects, Winners. Losers. Money changing hands. Trainers big-chested, trainers flat-chested, explaining how it might have happened, ‘except just for this.’ All of them men. All of them older than my eighteen years, full of being men, confident, cocksure, perhaps offhand. They have a right to be. They know what they know—some of which I have still to learn, but not much, I think. Not much, I hope. We shall see, we shall see.

(West with the Night, p. 144)

By contrast, Markham’s transition from horsetrainer to airplane pilot does not appear to have been similarly problematic, perhaps because by the time Markham learned to fly—at age 28—she had already proven herself in a man’s world. She may have benefited too from the fact that flying was still a comparatively new profession, whose opportunities were being taken by both men and women.

Although the first pilots and inventors had been men, it was not long before women followed them into the air. In 1910, a French baroness Raymonde de Laroche, who had taken flying lessons from French aviator Charles Voisin, became the first woman ever to gain a pilot’s license. Laroche is on record as saying that she did not see why women should not fly as well as men, arguing,“It does not rely so much on strength as on physical and mental coordination” (Laroche in Lomax, p. 24). The following year, the American Harriet Quimby became one of a few more women to acquire their licenses. Unfortunately Quimby also became one of the first women killed, in an air accident in 1912. Her death and the ghoulish crowd expectations of similar tragedies whenever women took to the air discouraged several promising aviatrixes from pursuing flying as a career. But others persevered. Bessica Raiche was honored as the first American woman aviator after making a short solo flight in a fragile aircraft—constructed of bamboo, silk, and wire—that she had designed herself. Another American, Ruth Law, also enjoyed a successful career, becoming the first woman to fly at night—a 20-minute moonlit flight around Staten Island in November 1913—and to perform a loop-the-loop in the air.

While women were not permitted to fly planes in the First World War, they returned to the airfields soon after peace was declared. During the 1920s and 1930s, several British women, most of them titled and wealthy, took up flying. Although two of them perished with their pilots in ill-fated attempts to cross the Atlantic Ocean, others survived to advance the cause of women’s rights in aviation. The feminist Lady Heath actively campaigned for advances in civil aviation and equality for women in the air, writing a letter of protest to the International Commission for Air Navigation, which—in 1924—had excluded women from“any employment in the operating crew of aircraft engaged in public transport” (Lomax, p. 38). Summoned before the commission to prove her competence as a pilot, Lady Heath—then Sophie Elliott-Lynn—demonstrated her skill to the satisfaction of witnesses and qualified for her B license, which allowed her to pursue a career as a professional pilot. The B license stipulated that all applicants had to be between 19 and 45, physically fit, and have flown solo for at least 100 hours. Applicants also had to possess sufficient technical knowledge of mechanical theory, meteorology, and navigation. In 1926 the commission’s ban on passenger-carrying women pilots was reversed, though women had to undergo medical re-examination every three months, whereas their male counterparts were re-examined every six months.

By the time Markham received her own B license in the 1930s, the presence of women pilots was, for the most part, grudgingly accepted. Some aviatrixes had even achieved fame and been hailed as conquering heroines after flying new routes or setting records on long-distance flights. Among these women were America’s Amelia Earhart and Britain’s Amy Johnson, both of whom were Markham’s immediate contemporaries. Ironically, Earhart and Johnson’s fates were eerily similar; both went mysteriously missing on their last recorded flights—Earhart vanishing over the South Pacific in 1937, Johnson over the Thames River estuary in 1941. Their bodies were never recovered. Musing about how hazardous early flying was, one historian sums up the accomplishments of these first women pilots:

The pioneers of aviation needed courage and determination, qualities shown by the women who, although in a minority, followed the men into the air, where their presence was often resented. Their successes made them instant heroines, their failures were used to prove that women were physically and psychologically unfit to fly, and their survival as proof of the safety of aviation.

(Lomax, p. 1)

Sources and literary context

Markham drew primarily from her own experiences—her childhood in Kenya, her years as a horse trainer and professional pilot, her daring trans-Atlantic flight—for West with the Night. The people who appear in the memoir were taken from life as well—Beryl’s trusted African servant, Arap Ruta; pilot and instructor Tom Campbell Black; safari guide Denys Finch-Hatton; and Great White Hunter Bror von Blixen. Perhaps out of a desire to focus on the more successful aspects of her life or to avoid giving offense, Markham also omitted several people and incidents from her memoir, which may be as remarkable as what she chose to include.

In West with the Night, little mention is made of Markham’s mother, Clara, or her brother Richard, both of whom left Africa in 1906. Richard, who was sickly as a child, fared poorly in the Kenyan climate, while Clara could not adapt to the settlers’ life. After returning to England, Clara divorced Charles Clutterbuck and remarried. Beryl, who remained in Africa with her father, was an adult before she saw her mother and brother again. Also omitted are Markham’s two youthful marriages, to rugby player Jock Purves in 1919 and to Mansfield Markham in 1927; both ended in divorce. Likewise, Markham


In recent years, some doubt has been cast upon whether Beryl Markham truly wrote West with the Night, or whether the actual author was Raoul Schumacher, a writer and journalist who later became Markham’s third husband. Those who hold to the later view, including biographer Errol Trzebinski, argue that Markham had little formal education, did not like to read, and began writing only after she met Schumacher, Moreover, much of the comments on the typewritten manuscript of West with the Night were in Schumacher’s handwriting and contained inaccuracies with regard to African terminology (the name“Arab’’ instead of“Arap”) and to flying that Markham would not have made. Mary S. Lovell, another of Markham’s biographers, argues that on the contrary Schumacher’s manuscript comments prove only that he edited, not that he authored the book, and that“the Americanization of Beryl’s anglicized spelling” may have resulted in the errors in African terms. Lovell also claims that Markham had already started her manuscript before meeting Schumacher in late 1941, citing as evidence letters that passed between Markham and the publishing house Houghton Mifflin. In sum, Schumacher was clearly involved in creating the memoir; biographers disagree only over to what extent.

does not mention her only son, Gervaise, born in 1929, whom she handed over to her mother-in-law to raise before returning to Kenya alone in 1930. Neither does Markham allude to her love affairs—with Prince Henry of England (this affair contributed to the failure of her second marriage); with Denys Finch-Hatton, who had also been romantically involved with Isak Dinesen; with Bror Blixen, who accompanied Markham on several adventures, and with Tom Campbell Black, who first taught her to fly a plane.

Markham was not the only woman to compose a memoir about her life as a British settler in Kenya. Isak Dinesen published Out of Africa (1937) and Elspeth Huxley, The Flame Trees of Thika (1959) not too long before and after Markham (Dinesen’s memoir is also in Literature and Its Times). Nor was she the only woman to write about her experiences as a pilot during the 1920s and 1930s. Amelia Earhart (20 hrs. 40 min., 1929) and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (North to the Orient, 1935) also wrote of their adventures in the air. It is unclear whether the writings of Markham’s fellow aviatrixes influenced her own contribution to the literature of flight. However, one definite influence upon Markham’s writing was Raoul Schumacher, an American ghost writer and editor, who became her third husband and made various recommendations about the manuscript of West with the Night, such as which incidents to include and to leave out of the finished book. Schumacher may also have been the person to suggest Markham choose a loose, episodic structure for her memoir. Another subtler influence on Markham’s writing may have been the French aviator and writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, whom she first met in 1932. Markham’s biographer Mary S. Lovell notes similarities of tone and style in samples by both authors and theorizes that Saint-Exupery may have helped Markham find her literary voice (see Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince , also in Literature and Its Times).


West with the Night was well-received from the start, garnering mostly positive reviews. Critics praised Markham’s vivid depictions of her life in Africa and her experiences as a flyer. E. M. of the Boston Globe wrote that“Markham has made a real contribution to the literature of flight” (E. M. in James and Brown, p. 512). Likewise, Clifton Fadiman, writing for the New Yorker, observed, “The chapters on flying over Africa are unusually fresh and even thrilling… . Her descriptions of the strange country over which she travelled are sensitive, not unworthy of comparison with the books of Anne Morrow, and a little rapturous about the ‘feel’ of Africa” (Fadiman in James and Brown, p. 513). J. S. Southron of the New York Times was also impressed, calling West with the Night”[a] book quite unlike anything that has been written by any other woman or about Africa, its natives, its hunting and its future by anybody… . And it is written with exceptional, simple beauty in a style that, without aiming at distinction, achieves it unquestionably” (Southron in James and Brown, p. 513). Rose Feld, writing for Books, similarly declared, “When a rk ham, Beryl . West with the Night’ comes along it leaves a reviewer very humble… . For ‘West With the Night’ is more than autobiography; it is a poet’s feeling for her land; an adventurer’s response to life; a philosopher’s evaluation of human beings and human destinies” (Feld in James and Brown, p. 512).

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Gunston, Bill, ed. Aviation. London: Octopus Books, 1978.

James, Metrice M., and Dorothy Brown, Eds. Book Review Digest. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1943.

Lomax, Judy. Women of the Air. London: John Murray, 1986.

Lovell, Mary S. Straight On Till Morning. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Markham, Beryl. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983.

Ogot, Bethwell A. Historical Dictionary of Kenya. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1981.

Tangye, Nigel. Britain in the Air. London: William Collins, 1944.

Trzebinski, Errol. Kenya Pioneers. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.

_____. The Lives of Beryl Markham. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

About this article

West with the Night

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


West with the Night