Skip to main content

Each of the books shortlisted for the 2020 Cundill History Prize tells a remarkable tale. Together, they share a complex history of empire, oppression and resistance.

The US$75,000 prize, for the best English-language history writing, will be awarded on Dec. 3. The Globe and Mail spoke with the finalists – Rutgers historian Camilla Townsend, Harvard historian Vincent Brown and popular historian William Dalrymple – about their nominated works.

Excerpts: Read from Cundill Prize finalists Fifth Sun, Tacky’s Revolt and The Anarchy

Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Author Camilla TownsendHandout

Your book tells the story of the Aztecs from their perspective, clearing up misconceptions, mischaracterizations and misunderstandings – and de-centring the Spanish colonial narrative. What is one central takeaway you hope the reader will come away with?

It’s all very well to say that we’re not going to tell the story from the point of view of the Spaniards but we will actually hear what the Indians say. That in itself is something valuable, but one wants to know more. Okay, where does this lead us? In some ways, there are places where it leads us down the same storyline that we’ve already known, just from a different point of view. But I do think there are some surprises when we hear Indigenous words. One aspect of their lives that a lot has been made of is human sacrifice, and there’s a kind of deeply entrenched belief in various popular cultures around the world that the Aztecs were in love with death, that they revelled in it, they lived for it, that they truly believed that if they didn’t murder X number of people per month, the universe would stop. I find no evidence of this. The stories that I have read – the histories, the poems – they lament death, they lament the need for the sacrifice.

Are there any ways in which the history you write about speaks to the present or the future?

This history that largely unfolds 500 years ago speaks to the present. Today’s descendant communities, whether we’re talking about modern people in Mexico or the migrants who have moved up into North America and elsewhere, live with the burden of an internalized sense that Aztec people and even people who carry their blood today are in some sense savage. I have seen modern books, even quite good books, refer to this phenomenon. I think it is important for people today to understand that we’ve had it wrong, that this is not who they were and certainly not who their descendants are.

Are there any books you’re reading right now or that you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?

Well, can I cheat a little? I’d like to say the other two finalists.

If people want to know more about the Aztecs, I would recommend The Slippery Earth by Louise Burkhart. It’s an old book but does a wonderful job of showing how difficult it was for the Nahuas and the Christians to talk to each other in the 16th century.

Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Belknap Press, 2020)

Author Vincent BrownStephanie Mitchell/Vincent Brown

Much of your book is told through the lens of Apongo, also called Wager. Why did you choose to highlight his story more than, say, Tacky’s or others involved in the revolt at the time?

We’ve known this revolt as Tacky’s Revolt ever since the 18th-century planter and historian Edward Long wrote about it in his three­-volume history of Jamaica, where he largely named Tacky as the principal leader of the revolt. And ever since then, historians have called it Tacky’s Revolt. But of course, Tacky wasn’t the only, and maybe not even the principal, leader of this event.

There was also the fact that we have some information about Apongo that we don’t have about other leaders. I was in some ways just drawing on the sources that I had, because always with what we call subaltern history, the history of people who did not leave their own records, the history of people who were relatively powerless, we are stuck with what we’ve got.

Are there any ways in which the history you write about speaks to the present or the future?

One of the things that jumps out to me is that when one thinks of slavery and its legacies, mostly one thinks of the kind of civic exclusion and poverty that attends the descendants of the enslaved, and also the stigma that’s attached to people who typically show evidence of descent from formerly enslaved peoples. So, African phenotypical features tend to mark people out for low social status throughout the Americas and any of these territories. But one of the things that I think my work shows is that added to that can be a kind of anti-Black militarism that marks Black people out, not only as people to be excluded or people of lower status, but also as potential enemies, and I think that that kind of underlying anti­-Black militarism helps in part to explain the disproportionate police violence that’s meted out against Black people, not only in a place like the United States, but also where the police are Black in places like Jamaica and in Brazil, where Black people and dark-skinned people seem to signify a danger to the state. Now, I want to stress that that’s a kind of an underlying impulse. There are also far more proximate causes that have to be taken into account, perhaps even more.

Are there any books you’re reading right now or that you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?

I’m really interested in this book by a historian named Thavolia Glymph about the Civil War. It’s a new book called The Women’s Fight. One of the things that she’s looking at is how deeply engaged women were in actual combat during the Civil War.

William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (Bloomsbury, 2019)

Author William DalrympleMAURIZIO VANOLI/Handout

As you write in the book, Edmund Burke referred to the East India Company as “a state in the guise of a merchant,” and you call its takeover of India the “supreme act of corporate violence in world history.” How did the company come to be in a position where that was possible?

It was a company. That’s, in a sense, the crucial idea behind the book. The Victorians used to talk about the British conquest of India, as if it was the British government, as if it was something coming out of Downing Street or the Foreign Office involving the British Army and the British Navy. But in almost all cases, it wasn’t. It was run by a private corporation based in one office block five-windows wide in one street in London. And for most of its history, what conquests it made in India were won by Indian troops, bizarrely – ethnic Indians working as mercenaries for this corporation and, in many cases, paid for by money lent by Indian bankers.

Are there any ways in which the history you write about speaks to the present or the future?

This is a very contemporary story. We are extremely worried in the world today about the power of Big Tech, the way that companies such as Amazon can grasp monopoly positions. We’re worried by the power of surveillance capitalism, of Google and Facebook spying on us. We’re worried about the power of huge corporations.

Now, all this begins with the East India Company. The East India Company is the corporation that invents the idea of a corporation which can straddle the globe and which can bring down governments it doesn’t like. So it’s a contemporary story, prescient, and a warning.

Are there any books you’re reading right now or that you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?

I’m looking forward to reading the two other finalists. They both sound like spectacular books. But the books which I’ve read this year which are fascinating are Diana Darke’s Stealing from the Saracens and Violet Moller’s The Map of Knowledge. And both of those books are about something that I’m very interested in, which is the Islamic roots of much European of civilization.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.