Wilbur Addison Smith was born on Jan. 9, 1933, in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia). He was named for Wilbur Wright, the aviation pioneer. His father, Herbert, was a rancher who became a sheet metal worker. His mother, Elfreda, was a painter who encouraged his reading.
He contracted cerebral malaria when he was 18 months old. “It probably helped me,” he said later, “because I think you have to be slightly crazy to try to earn a living from writing.” He caught polio when he was a teenager, which resulted in a weakened right leg.
When he was 8, his father gave him a .22-caliber Remington rifle. “I shot my first animal shortly afterward and my father ritually smeared the animal’s blood on my face,” he wrote in his memoir, “On Leopard Rock: A Life of Adventures” (2018). “The blood was the mark of emerging manhood. I refused to bathe for days afterward.”
He attended Michaelhouse, a private boys’ school in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands of South Africa. He started a student newspaper there, but he hated school.
“Michaelhouse was a debilitating experience,” he later 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 writing, he said, became his refuge.
“I couldn’t sing nor dance nor wield a paintbrush worth a damn,” he told the Australian website Booktopia in 2012, “but I could weave a pretty tale.”
He said that he had originally wanted to write about social conditions in South Africa as a journalist, but that his father nudged him toward what he thought was a more stable profession. After graduating from Rhodes University in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), South Africa, with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1954, he worked for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for four years, then joined his father’s sheet metal manufacturing business. When that company faltered, he became a government tax assessor.