Wilbur Smith: Legendary novelist dies aged 88

Zambia-born author wrote nearly 50 books over a career that spanned five decades

A household name in historical and adventure fiction, Wilbur Smith sold about 130 million books over a career spanning five decades. AFP
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Internationally acclaimed author Wilbur Smith has died in South Africa aged 88, his publisher announced on Saturday.

"Global bestselling author Wilbur Smith died unexpectedly this afternoon at his Cape Town home after a morning of reading and writing with his wife Niso by his side," a statement released on the Wilbur Smith Books website read.

With 49 titles under his belt since his first novel When the Lion Feeds was published in 1964, the Zambia-born Smith became a household name in literature.

"The undisputed and inimitable master of adventure writing, Wilbur Smith's novels have gripped readers for over half a century, selling over 140 million copies worldwide in more than thirty languages," the statement read.

His bestselling Courtney Series was the longest running in publishing history.

It spanned several generations of the Courtney family and three centuries, "through critical periods from the dawn of colonial Africa to the American Civil War, and to the apartheid era in South Africa".

"In the 49 novels Smith has published to date, he has transported his readers to gold mines in South Africa, piracy on the Indian Ocean, buried treasure on tropical islands, conflict in Arabia and Khartoum, ancient Egypt, World War Two Germany and Paris, India, the Americas and the Antarctic, encountering ruthless diamond and slave traders and big game hunters in the jungles and bush of the African wilderness".

Born on January 9, 1933, to a British family in what was then Northern Rhodesia, Smith encountered from an early age the forest, hills and savannah of Africa, on his parents' large ranch.

He gained recognition in 1964 with When the Lion Feeds, the tale of a young man growing up on a South African cattle ranch that led to 15 sequels, tracing the ambitious family's fortunes for more than 200 years.

"I wove into the story chunks of early African history. I wrote about black people and white. I wrote about hunting and gold mining and carousing and women," he said in a biography on his official website.

He also leant on meticulous historical research and his own extensive travels, establishing a method he would use over a career spanning five decades in which sold about 130 million books.

But it was with Taita, the hero of his Egyptian Series, that Wilbur "most strongly identified, and River God remains one of his best-loved novels to this day", said the website statement.

His office thanked Smith's "millions of fans across the world who cherished his incredible writing and joined us all on his amazing adventures".

Updated: November 14, 2021, 6:23 AM