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The dividing legacy of the late best-selling novelist Wilbur Smith

FILE - Late internationally acclaimed Central African born author, Wilbur Smith. Smith died in South Africa aged 88, his publisher announced on November 13. Photo by HAIDER SHAH / AFP)

FILE - Late internationally acclaimed Central African born author, Wilbur Smith. Smith died in South Africa aged 88, his publisher announced on November 13. Photo by HAIDER SHAH / AFP)

Published Nov 21, 2021


Cape Town – Zambian-born author Wilbur Smith was laid to rest in Durbanville Memorial Park, in Cape Town, on Wednesday last week.

The world renowned storyteller’s themes find his legacy dividing opinion in the same root of his success, his books.

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Wilbur Smith died last Saturday at the age of 88, his office revealed via social media.

His death was described as being unexpected and with no reason mentioned, especially since he wrote of himself as being a health conscious non-smoker for 45 years, who exercised regularly and had undergone regular medical checks.

He is described as “the undisputed and inimitable master of adventure writing”.

His 49 novels sold more than 140 million copies worldwide, translated to over 30 languages.

The Wilbur Smith office highlights the Courtney Series as the high point of his legacy which has become the longest running in publishing history.

The Courtney Series is 21 books that span the career of the author from his first novel When the Lion Feeds which was published in 1964.

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Despite When the Lion Feeds being Smith’s first book, it is actually the 15th book in the series’ chronological order.

According to reports, South Africa’s Publication Control Board banned the book for 11 years due to it dealing “in an improper manner with promiscuity, passionate love scenes, sexual intercourse, obscene language, blasphemous language, sadism and cruelty”.

Dr Isabel Santaulària Capdevila, associate professor in the Department of English and Linguistics at the University of Lleida in Spain, describes the Smith’s Courtney Series as “an obvious example of the application of biology to support the separate development of blacks under apartheid”.

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“True to apartheid and colonial perceptions of colour, he perpetuates and intensifies, via his fiction, the perception of blacks as essentially and naturally debased.”

Smith’s recurring theme of defending apartheid rears its head in the Courtney Series’ 5th book (chronologically) in the series titled Rage.

Chrysaor Jordan – a popular user from the social question and answer website Quora with over 45 million answer views – describes all of Smith’s novels as being racist, with Rage being the worst.

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“I only read it to see if it was as bad as I had heard.

“I discovered, no: it was worse,” Jordan adds.

Author and documentary-maker Matthew Teller posted on Twitter two identical articles by Wilbur Smith.

One from the Daily Mail in 2019, and the other from the Telegraph in 2001.

Comments, like that of travel writer for the Telegraph and NatGeo Lottie Gross, sum up the general consensus of what some think of his work – “consistently racist for almost 20 years”.

However, some readers point to his colonial heritage since being born in 1933 to British parents in the former colony of Northern Rhodesia which is now Zambia.

Sympathetic to being a victim of his time due to prevalent attitudes during that era.

In 2011 when asked by the Australian Times of critics arguing his books themes being racist and sexist, Smith responded: “I would say, that is the way the world works.

“If you see that in my books then you see something that is not there.”

Smith’s office writes of him being a believer in deep research who corroborated every fact and adhered to his first publishers advice to “write about the things you know well”. | African News Agency(ANA)

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