Sky Was His Limit

Michael Anthony
Date Published: 
Trinidad Express

One of the most colourful figures who shaped our 20th century was Mikey Cipriani.

Cipriani, who was born in 1890, was setting a hot pace among cyclists of the Caribbean even before he was 15.

His great year came in 1910 when he was 20. Cipriani matched wheels with the best cyclists of Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica, and among the rest of his colleagues in Trinidad, to crown himself West Indies cycling champion.

He excelled in all manner of sport. He represented Trinidad in inter-colonial cricket, and was also one of the foremost footballers in the land.

Indeed, one of the football critics of that time described Cipriani as a problem for selectors, because, he wrote, "he shone in every position on the field."

Cipriani was also a pole-vaulter of exceptional ability. He boxed, too, and later became a prominent boxing referee in Port of Spain.

But all this was before the First World War. When the European conflict broke out on August 4, 1914, Cipriani put aside bicycle, cricket gear, football gear, his vaulting pole, and his boxing gloves, and headed for Europe.

He even put aside a career, for in the heat and frenzy of that cycling day he had studied hard enough to qualify as a solicitor.

However, he went to the front. He did not go with the Trinidad contingents who left in 1915, but for some reason went privately.

The reason for this may well have been the clear-cut and well-delineated colour situation in Trinidad at the time. Of the two classes of contingents which left, one was the public contingent, for black recruits, and the other, the Merchants and Planters contingents, comprising white recruits.

Cipriani, who shared the blood of both black and white, may have decided he belonged to neither group.

In Europe, he joined the Second Life Guards and saw service mainly in France and Belgium. One of the most spectacular moments he lived was when, in the famous battle of Mons, Belgium, the Germans wiped out an entire battalion, leaving but few survivors. Cipriani happened to be one of the survivors. He was later decorated with the Medal of Mons.

Returning home in 1919 his life was to turn from sport forever. He was 29 and his prowess on the sporting field had deserted him.

He took solicitors chambers on St Vincent Street and worked for a while.

But the call of bravado and adventure was a strong call.

During the last stages of the war he had seen little flying machines and his great passion was to learn to fly. As soon as he came back he married a white girl called Daisy Mathieu. This itself called for some bravado, for Trinidad society had decreed that the races must not mix.

But the real bravado came when, shortly after his marriage, he went to England to take flying lessons from Geoffrey de Havilland, one of the pioneers of the aeroplane.

Cipriani learned to fly in record time and ordered his own aeroplane from de Havilland.

It was already 1931 and one of the earliest of airlines, the French Compagnie Generale Aeropostale, had begun running a service from France to South America, with a stop at Trinidad.

But they cleared out soon afterwards and it is said that Cipriani dug up their landing strip and prepared a proper runway for flying.

Earle Lickfold, a Trinidadian who was one of the pioneer fliers in the war, brought the airplane down for Cipriani - a tiny two-seater which he christened Hummingbird.

They collaborated in running pleasure flights at Piarco. But most of all Cipriani and his wife Daisy made the most of fling practice, and here was where the hero mastered the technique of flying.

This technique of Cipriani's stood him in good stead when on October 22, 1933, the Graf Zeppelin flew low over Trinidad.

The airship, which was on its way from South America to Germany, came in at Mayaro.

At one point of the way, Cipriani went up to greet and welcome the crew of the Graf Zeppelin. The sight, and the gesture, must have filled Trinidadians with pride.

But the sands of time ran out quickly for Cipriani. In 1934 the government of Trinidad and Tobago was thinking of establishing an air-link between Trinidad and Tobago.

When he was approached, Cipriani reacted with enthusiasm. The authorities prepared a suitable airstrip at Shirvan Park, and Cipriani was ready to make the first flight to Tobago and the first ever landing in Tobago.

On the morning of Sunday, June 3, 1934, he set out from a little airstrip, which he had constructed at Mucurapo. Daisy could not make the trip and Cipriani was accompanied by a colleague, Leslie Bradshaw.

Some years afterwards, Daisy said, "I did not have the least fear that anything would go wrong. But when the time for his arrival passed and I heard nothing I became a little anxious. I telephoned the cable office.

"When they said they had heard nothing I became really worried. I grew frantic. I then got in touch with Tobago and they told me that they had been looking out but that they had not seen him. It is hard to describe what I felt then."

And Daisy's feeling was justified. What had happened was that despite the brightness of the Sunday morning, Cipriani, in scaling the northern range to take a clear course for Tobago, had hit a tree.

A search party found the plane seven days later in the forests of El Chiquero, near Blanchisseuse.

A mess of debris, flesh and bloodstains meant the end of Mikey Cipriani.