Born: January 9, 1933;

Died: November 13, 2021.

WILBUR Smith, who has died aged 88, was a multi-million-selling author who wrote adventure novels mostly set in Africa, where he grew up. His books weren’t literature, he said, they were stories, and although some critics dismissed the books as sexist or old-fashioned, they were consistently popular for half a century. Indeed, his name became a brand, with Smith co-authoring books right up until his death.

Most of the books, and the characters in them, could be traced right back to Smith’s childhood and youth in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. The young Wilbur was extremely comfortable and happy there, in the countryside of his parents’ 25,000-acre cattle ranch. Indeed, he dreaded being sent away on long train journeys to boarding school in South Africa.

The childhood on the ranch meant that from an early age he took the rough, often brutal nature of life in the African wild for granted. His grandfather, who had commanded a machine-gun team in the Zulu war, told him stories of his time in combat; he also remembers seeing his grandpa slaughter pigs with a knife which he then gave to the young Wilbur as a gift. For the rest of his life Smith collected knives with relish and when a friend gave him one as a present, he would write his thanks on the back of a £10 note.

When he was away from the ranch at school, his only sign of promise was in English, and his original ambition was to be a journalist. However, his father told him he would starve to death and so, instead, he studied commerce at Rhodes University in South Africa. He graduated in 1954 then qualified as a chartered accountant.

His desire to write had not, however, disappeared. After selling a short story to a magazine for £70 – twice his monthly salary as an accountant – he decided to have a go at a novel but it was rejected by every publisher he sent it to. In later years, he said he would occasionally take the manuscript out of the drawer and look at it when he needed a lesson in humility, although he later destroyed the only copy so that it could not be published after his death.

Smith’s first published novel was When The Lion Feeds, in 1964, and it established the formula right away. Centring on the sons of a ranch owner, it is full of tales of gold mining, big-game hunting, and beautiful women. The book, and most of those that followed, were all a link to Africa and his upbringing. “Africa is the dreamland,” said Smith, “and the inspiration behind so much of my writing.”

Smith was also a big-game hunter himself and first shot lions in defence of his father’s cattle herd when he was 13 years old. He always felt, though, that he should eat what he shot and had therefore tasted pretty much everything over the years. Lion, he said, tasted like the urine of an old tom cat. Elephant was like eating barbed wire although the cheeks were delicious. As for crocodile, it was very good, especially the tail.

By the late 1960s, Smith had settled down to a hugely successful writing career based on themes that his readers loved: treasure on tropical islands, piracy on the high seas, gold mines in South Africa, big-game hunters, ruthless diamond and slave traders, and war in Arabia and Khartoum. He also wrote a series of novels set in ancient Egypt, which were his own personal favourites.

In all, there were 49 novels, more than half of which were set in Africa and most of which included stories that were directly inspired by his own experiences. He said he had been shot accidentally three times, been charged by elephants and crocodiles and attacked by sharks, and had escaped death by disease several times – once as a newborn, when he contracted cerebral malaria, and, later, polio, when he was a teenager.

All of these experiences, and the adventure, went into the books and Smith vehemently defended the novels against criticism particularly as fashions and attitudes changed.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, he rejected the idea the idea that his books were overly lurid, colonialist or stereotyped. “I’ve been accused of violence and cruelty to animals and people. I’ve been accused of racism, sacrilege. The views that I’m presenting are not my own. They are my characters’.” He also said writing was like hunting with a game of dogs: “I let the characters run, I follow and record.”

One market that seemed more resistant to Smith’s formula than most was America, where his books sold well but not in the numbers they did elsewhere, and so in 2013 he signed a $24 million, six-book, contract with HarperCollins in an attempt to build a bigger US following.

Several film versions of his novels were made but they never quite caught the buzz and appeal of the originals. There was The Dark of the Sun, in 1968, with Rod Taylor; Gold (1974) with Roger Moore; and Shout at the Devil (1968), also with Moore. Smith also wrote a memoir in 2018, On Leopard Rock.

Speaking after his death, his publishers Bonnier Books described him as a passionate advocate of adventure fiction. His long-time agent Kevin Conroy Scott also described him as an icon beloved by his fans.

“His knowledge of Africa, and his imagination knew no limitations,” said Scott. “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 was married four times and is survived by his fourth wife Mokhiniso Rakhimova, whom he met while browsing in a branch of WH Smith in London. He is also survived by his children: Shaun and Christian, with first wife, Anne Rennie, and his son Lawrence, with his second, Jewell Slabbert. His third wife, Danielle Thomas, died of brain cancer in 1999.