I did it all, I had it all! Wilbur Smith, a novelist who died at the age of 88, writes Christopher Stevens


When he was eight, Wilbur Smith saw his father kill three cannibal lions. The animals attacked their safari camp at night, and awakened by the guide’s scream, Herbert Smith grabbed the torch and his heavy rifle.

On the way out of his tent, Herbert ran into the tent pole for the first time and opened his nose. Wilbur saw blood flow, and at the same moment realized that his father was just wearing a pajama top and was naked down from the waist down.

Then the lion charged. Herbert trained the torch beam on it with his left hand, lifted the rifle with his right hand and fired at the waist, as he held the pistol. He hit the lion’s chest.

Seconds later, he brought down two lions.

Wilbur Smith’s trophy-laden London home

That scene is the essence of every bestseller written by Wilbur Smith, who died at the age of 88: bloodshed, sexual masculinity, shootings and assassination in Africa.

He has sold more than 120 million books worldwide, translated it into 30 languages, and before signing a contract with ghostwriters in 2012, shelf-loaded more novels featuring his characters in the plot he helped invent.

Many of his stories, including Gold and Shout at the Devil starring Roger Moore, and The Mercenaries with Rod Taylor, have been turned into Hollywood blockbusters.

Smith may have received an inexhaustible gift from his grandfather, Courtney Smith, a Victorian prospector in the South African gold rush who commanded the machine-gun garment during the Zulu Wars of the 1870s.

Courtney recounts how during a safari she woke up to the frenzy of a masseuse, a giant dog named Brainless.

The dog refused to be quiet, so in the dark, he felt around for the whip to hit the animal. The shout turned into a high roar and then a roar.

The bearer hastened with the lamp – and Courtney was confronted by a lion, enslaved by blood. It had killed his dog.

The way Courtney said, he saw the ‘whip’ in his hand. . . And he realized he was beating a lion out of Africa’s most venomous snake, the black mamba.

It was inevitable to try to imitate Wilbur, a young man who grew up with such macho tales ringing in his ear.

The need to prove himself was made more urgent by the legacy of childhood diseases, such as cerebral malaria infection as a child, when he was not expected to survive, and the onset of polio as a child made him stunted.

At the age of 15, he and his friend Barry took a pair of rifles and set out on a ‘borrowed’ jeep from the Smith Ranch Ranch in northern Rhodesia, now Zambia.

They drove all day, venturing down the Kafue River before abandoning their vehicle and setting out on foot to find a large horned bull antelope called Kudu.

The teenage hunters failed to kill their prey – and as the night fell, they realized that they had no idea where their jeep was.

For the next two days, Herbert wandered in circles before flying in his Tiger Moth pipeline. Returning to the ranch, Wilbur’s father quietly removed his belt and struck the teen.

Herbert had little respect for his son (‘He called me a million times idiot’, Wilbur recalled) and mocked his ambitions of becoming a writer. Instead, he got a job in the tax office.

Wilbur Smith and wife Niso Smith crime thriller awards in London, depicted in 2013

Wilbur Smith and wife Niso Smith crime thriller awards in London, depicted in 2013

After a brief marriage with a woman named Anne Rennie, divorce ended, leaving two young children struggling to pay alimony, Wilbur attempted to write a novel.

His first attempt, ‘all radical politics and immature philosophy’, was rejected more than 20 times, before an agent told him, ‘Write what you know.’ The result was When the Lion Feeds, which started on Family Safari with a boy named Sean Courtney, who was desperate to please his father.

Herbert Smith was not a man who read novels and his son was no exception. But as a trophy to impress friends, he kept a copy of When the Lion Feeds in the boot of his car.

Published in 1964, the book is the first in a series featuring Courtney. Smith’s next bestseller, The Dark of the Sun, follows a group of mercenaries during the 1960s Congo Civil War – chased by murderers, ladies, drunken men, their former demons – ‘rent to kill, fight to survive.’

Smith wrote a fast-paced, persuasive conversation that left readers with no doubt that they know how men speak when they are free from civilization. He was capable of conspicuous violence and almost obscene sex scenes. His fans include Stephen King, who called Smith his favorite historical novelist: ‘Blood flows and blood flows.’

To research his books, Smith drowned in danger, lived in huts around gold mines, visited war zones, and spent whales with the Japanese navy.

He enjoyed flying and scuba diving and took three shooting safaris with the goal of killing three lions and three elephants every year for most of his life. He loved to pose with his hunting trophies, crafted from gigantic pair of ivory tusks sitting on a cheetah pelt.

Hunting fanatic: Wilbur is hit by his father with cannibals

Hunting fanatic: Wilbur is hit by his father with cannibals

Success brought him immense wealth, with his 49 books estimated to be over £ 100 million.

When he was 70 years old, he claimed he owned several houses – probably nine, including locations in London, South Africa and Switzerland, and an island in the Seychelles.

But wealth did not bring family happiness. Jewel brought a brief second marriage to Slabert

Third child: ‘If you are going to make a living by marrying every girl who puts her knickers for you,’ his father warned, ‘you’ll be a very busy boy.’

After marrying a third time, with a fan of her books, she moved away from all three children.

‘They’re not part of me – they’ve got my sperm, that’s all,’ he said. ‘I’m sad for them, because they’re not getting much money.

‘He did nothing to earn my respect and, in fact, did exactly the opposite.’

His relationship with his former wives was equally frosty.

He liked to boast that he had once struck a second Mrs. Smith on the street and did not recognize her: she said: “Hello Wilbur,” and I said: “Excuse me, do you know me?” She said: “Yes, you gave me a baby once.” ‘

Her third marriage to Daniel Thomas lasted 28 years, and in 1999 she died of cancer.

Wilbur Smith is shown in a June 20, 2011 photo in Rome.  Smith died unexpectedly on November 13 at his home in Cape Town, South Africa

Wilbur Smith is shown in a June 20, 2011 photo in Rome. Smith died unexpectedly on November 13 at his home in Cape Town, South Africa

A year later, as she was walking in London, the 66-year-old said, ‘I saw this Newbill Little Asian thing going on Sloane Street and I joined her at the bookstore.’

Directing her to the shelves where his titles were displayed, he introduced himself. She is Mokhiniso Rakimova, a Tajikistan based lawyer and 39 years younger than her. He married a year later.

Niso, as he called her, was ‘young, and I was like a stallion in a ranch full of mares.’

Niso helped renegotiate his publishing deal – the final deal signed in 2017 was worth £ 15 million – and he described her as his ‘most valuable asset’.

I am not proud of it but I have been married four times, ”he said. Two of them are dead, the first one hates me and he loves me, so I covered the whole spectrum.

‘I am lonely on my own. I need a woman by my side, someone I can talk to and respect, someone who respects me at the right time and tells me when I am a fool, it happens very often.

He worked until the end. When he died suddenly at his home in Cape Town on Saturday, he was writing and revising his latest novel that morning.

“My epigraph is like this: Don’t grieve for me,” he once said. ‘I’ve done it all. I had it all. Life is better for me and I have everything I need – except immortality.



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