Legendary adventure writer Wilbur Smith, 88, dies at his Cape Town home

14 November 2021 - 09:14 By TimesLIVE
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Author Wilbur Smith died at home on Saturday, after a morning of reading and writing.
Author Wilbur Smith died at home on Saturday, after a morning of reading and writing.
Image: WilburSmithBooks.com

Global best-selling author Wilbur Smith died unexpectedly on Saturday afternoon at his Cape Town home at the age of 88 after a morning of reading and writing, with his wife Niso by his side.

The adventure writer sold more than 140-million copies of his books worldwide in more than thirty languages, over a career spanning half a century.

Wilbur Smith’s first novel When the Lion Feeds, published in 1964, was an instant best-seller and each of his subsequent novels has featured in the best-seller charts, often at number one, earning the author the opportunity to travel far and wide in search of inspiration and adventure, his office said.

His best-selling Courtney Series, the longest running in publishing history, follows the Courtney family’s adventures across the world, spanning generations and three centuries, through critical periods from the dawn of colonial Africa to the American Civil War, and to the apartheid era in SA.

In the 49 novels Smith published, he featured the gold mines of SA, piracy on the Indian Ocean, buried treasure on tropical islands, conflict in Arabia and Khartoum, ancient Egypt, World War 2 Germany and Paris, India, the Americans and the Antarctic, encountering ruthless diamond and slave traders and big game hunters in the jungles and bush of the African wilderness.

Kate Parkin of Bonnier Books UK said: “It is with deep sadness that we mourn the death of our beloved author Wilbur Smith, whose seemingly inexhaustible creative energy and passion for storytelling will long live on in the hearts and minds of readers everywhere.”

“Wilbur never lost his appetite for writing and remained working every day of his life. He leaves behind him a treasure-trove of novels, as well as completed and yet to be published co-authored books and outlines for future stories. It has been a privilege and an honour to work closely with him on this remarkable publishing legacy and we look forward to sharing them with his millions of fans worldwide in years to come.”

Smith, formerly a bush survivalist and big game hunter, gained a pilot’s licence, was a scuba diver, managed his own game reserve and owned a tropical island in the Seychelles. He detailed his own life, in a memoir, On Leopard Rock, at the age of 85.

“He was a believer in deep research, meticulously corroborating every fact and adhering to the advice of his first publisher, Charles Pick at William Heinemann, to ‘write about the things you know well’.”

Smith was born on January 9, 1933, in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia.

At the age of eighteen months Wilbur became seriously ill with cerebral malaria. His father, Herbert Smith, was a sheet-metal worker and a strict disciplinarian and it was his more artistically inclined mother, Elfreda, who encouraged him to read the books of writers including CS Forester, Rider Haggard and John Buchan. His father thought his son’s obsession with books was unnatural and unhealthy and Wilbur became a secret reader, spending hours in the outhouse long-drop latrine where he kept his cache of favourite novels.

At eight, Wilbur enrolled at Cordwalles boarding school in Pietermaritzburg, SA, a preparatory school. He found the experience “brutal”. He was considered a poor pupil, but excelled in English composition. It was at prep school that he discovered Ernest Hemingway who would have a profound influence on his writing.

Senior school was the prestigious Michaelhouse in what is now the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands in SA. Smith was no happier: “Michaelhouse was a debilitating experience,” he recalled. “There was no respect for the pupils. The teachers were brutal, the prefects beat us, and the senior boys bullied us. It was a cycle of violence that kept perpetuating itself.” Reading and creative writing became his refuge.

At 16, he contracted polio which left him with a weak right leg, but it caused him little problem until later in life. The experience prompted his depiction of the flawed hero in his novels, in particular Garrick Courtney in the Courtney series of adventures.

Inspired by his own experience running wild on his father’s ranch, Smith wrote When the Lion Feeds, the story of brothers Sean and Garrick Courtney, and the tough life of cattle farming in the shadow of the Zulu wars and the gold rush. It was infused with the world he knew intimately. His agent sent it to Charles Pick, then MD of William Heinemann, who immediately responded to the raw authenticity of the storytelling. A Hollywood deal followed, and foreign rights sales racked up.

The novel was a best-seller and Wilbur quit his job at the tax office to write full time.

“His instinctive grasp of narrative, the rich material of his upbringing and the boundless story opportunities of his African homeland produced a string of novels that thrilled an ever-growing readership. His obsessive dedication to the craft of authorship enabled him to write almost a novel a year, allowing his publishers to build a best-selling brand name.”

As well as stand-alone novels, from piracy and poaching to diamond smuggling and the pursuit of buried treasure, Smith expanded his Courtney Series, of conflict and ambition within a sprawling family, moving back and forward through the centuries.

In the 1980s he began the Ballantyne Series, chronicling the family’s struggles during Rhodesia’s brief history and a decade later he would begin a series of novels set in Ancient Egypt, the latest of which, The New Kingdom, was published this autumn.

Smith’s personal life was as eventful as his novels. He married his fourth wife, Mokhiniso Rakhimova from Tajikistan, after meeting her in a bookshop near Sloane Square in London.

A passionate advocate of adventure fiction, Wilbur endeavoured to share his love for the genre through the global charitable foundation he and Niso established in 2015. Dedicated to growing the readership for adventure fiction and the promotion of reading and writing for younger generations across the world, its work will continue, led by Niso Smith.

Kevin Conroy Scott, his literary agent for the past 11 years, said: “Wilbur Smith was an icon, larger than life, beloved by his fans who collected his books in hardbacks and passed his work down through generations, fathers to sons and mothers to daughters. His knowledge of Africa, and his imagination knew no limitations. His work ethic and his powerful, elegant writing style made him known to millions. I cherish the role of working side by side with his wife Niso and the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation to keep the flame of his fictional universe alive for many years to come.”

Smith said at the conclusion of his memoir, “I’ve had tough times, bad marriages, people I loved dearly dying in my arms, burnt the midnight oil getting nowhere, but it has, all in the end, added up to a phenomenally fulfilled and wonderful life. I want to be remembered as somebody who gave pleasure to millions.”


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