October 20th 2020 in News

“Magnificent” Cundill History Prize Finalists shift perspectives on colonialism, slavery, and conquest

Vincent Brown, Professor of American History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University; the award-winning, best-selling British historian William Dalrymple; and Camilla Townsend, Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University, are the 2020 finalists for the world’s leading history prize — the US$75,000 Cundill History Prize, administered by McGill University.

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Vincent Brown
Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

William Dalrymple
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company

Bloomsbury Publishing

Camilla Townsend
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Oxford University Press USA

- In Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, Vincent Brown places a momentous 18th-century slave revolt into its wider geographical context, using innovative digital cartography to trace how the event shook the empire, and reshaped ideas of race.

- In a current and cautionary tale for the age of Big Business, William Dalrymple’s Sunday Times bestseller The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company lays bare how one of the world’s largest empires came to be replaced by a dangerously unregulated private company.

- Fifth Sun: A History of the Aztecs tells a people’s story through their own words: Camilla Townsend presents an accessible, individualised depiction of the Aztecs, grounded in texts written by indigenous people themselves, which brings them to life.


Peter Frankopan, 2020 Chair of the Jury, revealed the titles in a live-stream across the prize’s social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Working with partners in Canada, the US and the UK, the prize is rolling out an innovative digital programme this year. Following the announcement, the finalists are now being celebrated on the Cundill History Prize website, with juror and partner videos, extracts, author interviews and more. See cundillprize.com/2020finalists.

Peter Frankopan, 2020 Chair of the Jury, said: “These are three magnificent books chosen from an extraordinarily strong shortlist. The works of the finalists shine new light on topics that are riveting, revelatory and revolutionary. But they do not just offer important insights into the past; they also each have a striking resonance for the world around us in 2020.”

The three historians will be awarded US$10,000 each, and are now vying for the grand prize, which raises the reward for the winner to US$75,000, making the Cundill History Prize the largest purse for a work of non-fiction in English.

Antonia Maioni, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at McGill University, said: “The Cundill History Prize finalists probe difficult pasts that continue to have serious repercussions today. How important — as we navigate this challenging year — to champion books that deliver outstanding scholarship and analysis in such page-turning reads.”

After a summer of intense reading and re-reading, the 2020 jurors joined Frankopan on a Zoom call to pick the three finalists from an expanded shortlist of 10, with Anne Applebaum calling in from Poland; Lyse Doucet from Kabul, Afghanistan; Eliga Gould from New Hampshire, USA, and Sujit Sivasundaram from Cambridge, UK.

The prize has further revealed details of its 2020 Cundill History Prize Festival, which will be held — fully digitally — in the first week of December (Wednesday, 2-Thursday, 3):

Hosted by McGill University’s history department, this year’s Cundill Lecture will be brought to audiences as part of prize partner HistoryExtra’s prestigious virtual lecture programme. Last year’s winner, Julia Lovell (Maoism: A Global History) will speak on “Writing Maoism as Global History”, before the China expert will take questions in an audience Q&A. | In partnership with BBC HistoryExtra, Wednesday, December 2, 2020, 1 p.m. EST / 6 p.m. BST

Returning for its second year, the Cundill Forum sparks fresh thinking by bringing together the three finalists in a conversation on a theme of global, current relevance. Further details of this special event will be released soon. | Wednesday, December 2, 2020

For the 2020 Winner Announcement, the British-Canadian television presenter and historian Dan Snow, host of the HistoryHit podcast, joins Peter Frankopan, Chair of the Jury, for a very special event — featuring the three finalists live from where they are, insights from jurors Anne Applebaum, Lyse Doucet, Eliga Gould and Sujit Sivasundaram, speeches, and outtakes from the Cundill Lecture and Forum. Peter Frankopan will announce the winner live, before Dan Snow treats you to a winner interview. | In partnership with HistoryHit TV & the Timeline YouTube channel, Thursday, December 3, 2020, 1 p.m. EST / 6 p.m. BST

Juror videos on the finalists, as well as individual and group book photography of the 2020 finalists and author headshots are available for download here.

The 2020 winner will join an exceptional alumni list of world-class historians: Julia Lovell (2019), Maya Jasanoff (2018), Daniel Beer (2017), Thomas W. Laqueur (2016), Susan Pedersen (2015), Gary Bass (2014), Anne Applebaum (2013), Stephen Platt (2012), Sergio Luzzatto (2011), Diarmaid MacCulloch (2010), Lisa Jardine (2009), Stuart B. Schwartz (2008).

For further information and to join the conversation please visit: www.cundillprize.com
twitter.com/CundillPrize | facebook.com/cundillprizemcgill | instagram.com/cundill.prize

For all media enquiries, please contact Daniel Kramb at FMcM Associates at danielk@fmcm.co.uk.