The History Books

On the Cundill Prize short list

It is no easy thing to run a global book prize from Canada, far from the great publishing empires and the kingmakers of literary fashion, but the Cundill History Prize works at it. Funded by the bequest of a Montreal investor and mostly administered through McGill University, the Cundill seeks recognition by spending a lot — $75,000 (U.S.) to each year’s winner, plus $10,000 to each of the runners‑up — and by going global to a degree rivalled only by the Booker Prize. The Cundill aims to identify the best histories published in English, and mostly it looks abroad to do that. A prominent Canadian (Jeffrey Simpson, Charlotte Gray) or near-Canadian (David Frum) often joins the jury, but the panels are dominated by international scholars and critics, while authors from Ivy League schools and their European counterparts are strongly represented on the short lists. In a dozen years of Cundill finalists, I find only a single book on a Canadian topic: David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream, from 2009.

Seeking wide attention for a prize in history is a tricky mandate in itself. Of one of the early winners, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s remarkable A History of Christianity, the critic and juror Adam Gopnik wrote, “If any book could truly fulfill the charge of the Cundill Prize — to make first class history more potent to a wide reading public, and above all to remind us that history, even three thousand years worth, matters — this one does.” But a reviewer in the Telegraph was unconvinced: “First let me say that I don’t think anyone is going to read this book. It’s 1,161 pages long, for goodness sake.” The Booker seems able to make thick unreadable novels you have never heard of go viral, but serious history is a tough sell in a world where even critics often take their historical orientations from fiction.

Against such prejudices, the Cundill argues the case that history — big serious history — matters. In a good year, its short lists and winners provide a chart of what deserves attention in current historical practice. For that purpose, 2020 was a good year. Its finalists — about Mughal India, Aztec Mexico, and plantation Jamaica — talk to each other about the ways the leading edge of scholarship addresses and even reconceptualizes what we might think of as contemporary concerns.

William Dalrymple has lived for years in India, where he writes best-selling books that confront the realities of colonialism. In The Anarchy, he is at pains to explode the myth that the British Empire was dedicated to bettering India. “One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language,” his opening sentence observes, “was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot.”

The “anarchy” of his title is double. At the start of the eighteenth century, the two-hundred-year-old Muslim Mughal empire presided over an array of semi-independent Hindu principalities, and India was probably the wealthiest society in the world. But dynastic infighting and military challenges from resurgent Mysore, Bihar, Bengal, and Avadh brought anarchy to a formerly quiescent reign. Between 1750 and 1800, the British East India Company, previously an import-export business with just a handful of employees, seized the opportunity. It built a private army larger than Britain’s and exploited the local rivalries to make itself de facto ruler of the subcontinent. Then it exported unrivalled wealth home to its shareholders, unleashing on India a capitalist anarchy of famine, poverty, and dependency. A Walmart with armies, Dalrymple concludes, is no model for a society.

Dalrymple is primarily interested in how India and its rulers — the tragic emperor Shah Alam, the upstart Tipu Sultan, the kingmaking bankers of the Jagat Seth family — responded to the joint-stock company’s invasion. Emperors were blinded, prisoners slaughtered, and princesses handed out as concubines, while poets lamented that the arrow of fate cannot be parried by the shield of effort. As he covers scores of battles among multiple combatants in unfamiliar places, it may be inevitable that Dalrymple must sketch his generals as brutal and brilliant when they won, fearful and indecisive when they lost. He writes a fast-moving, character-driven, and violent narrative, driven by the clash of armies and the fate of princes and commanders. But Indian society beyond the palaces of rajas and nawabs remains something of a mystery. There is a powerful critique of colonialism in The Anarchy, but the best history of the year should reach deeper than trumpets and drums.

Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs is also focused more on the conquered than on the conquerors in another epochal colonization, but Townsend, a historian at Rutgers University, barely glances at the battlefield exploits of Moctezuma or Cortés. She describes her book being born in a quiet library, “a world of frozen voices,” as she “hears” a Mexica princess facing execution defiantly taunt her captors. And she revels in the strangeness of deep encounters with the distant past.

Townsend is one of a group of scholars, both in and out of Mexico, who have learned to read Nahua — the language of the Nahuatl, whom we generally call the Aztecs — to study manuscripts written by Indigenous annalists in the century after Cortés’s conquest. Using the conquerors’ alphabet and writing tools, they recorded their own pasts and traditions — rich, brutal, and detailed — from two hundred years before the conquest to the century after.

The Nahuatl annals recreate what had once been oral performances. Much in them is surely mythologized, and their ritual formulas and culture-specific imagery are not easily accessible to modern readers. Still, Townsend says, “in the annals, we can hear the Aztecs talking.” By listening to them, puzzling out what they say, she escapes the depictions of Aztecs left to us by Spanish missionaries and conquistadors and presents Nahuatl voices on Nahuatl history.

Townsend begins with Chimalxochitl, the defiant young woman, captured and ritually sacrificed in 1299 as the Mexica, then a minor tribe migrating south from modern-day Utah, struggled to find a place in Mexico’s Central Valley. Chimalxochitl was immortalized in the annals for her prediction of her descendants’ eventual bloody rise to power and wealth. Later annals, recording the unexpected reign of Itzcoatl, seemingly a minor figure in the Mexica dynasty, illuminate how Tenochtitlan became a great city, dominating all the Nahuatl peoples. In the annal of Quecholcohuatl, for example, Townsend explores the resentment and the deference that subject peoples felt for their Mexica rulers.

In the Spanish invasion, Townsend gives us the perspective of a nameless woman sold by her Nahuatl nation to the distant Maya, from whom Hernan Cortés acquired her. The conquistador named her Marina. Nahua has no letter “r,” so to them Marina became Malina and then, with the honorific “tzin” added, Malintzin, which was turned back into Spanish as Malinche — the name that made her famous in European histories of the conquest, as Cortés’s translator, counsellor, and spouse. The Nahuatl annals enable Townsend to entirely reimagine and reinterpret her and the whole complex relationship of conquered and conqueror.

Fifth Sun, an original and disorienting version of Aztec history, does not flinch from the deep cultural barriers that Townsend — along with her readers — faces. Do we balk at the name Chimalxochitl (Chi‑mal‑SHO‑cheet)? She warns that a simple translation — Shield Flower — might make the woman romantic, exoticized, and less real to us. The reader will have to work alongside her, she suggests. With some coaching in Nahua pronunciation (“x” sounds like “sh,” the “l” in “tl” is almost mute, “hu” sounds like a “w”), she soon has us reading with growing confidence: Me‑SHEE‑ka for Mexica, NA‑wat for Nahuatl. As much as it is a history of a Mesoamerican people, Fifth Sun is a meditation on the difficulties of cross-cultural understanding and the value of attempting it.

Vincent Brown starts Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War with a sledgehammer anecdote about the crossing of cultures. In the 1740s, in modern-day Ghana, a military leader named Apongo regularly dealt and dined with John Cope, a British slave trader becoming rich by exporting war prisoners to the Caribbean plantations. Some years later, retired with his fortune to Jamaica, Cope met Apongo again. His African counterpart had suffered a military reversal at home and was now himself a slave, renamed Wager. From time to time, the naval captain who owned Wager allowed his neighbour Cope to invite his old business partner to dinner, and they talked of redeeming him and sending him home. But Cope died without acting on his promise. Later Wager applied his military experience as a leader and strategist to the slave uprising remembered in Jamaica as Tacky’s Revolt. He did not live to see its end.

In 1760–61, Tacky’s Revolt engaged more than a thousand men and women from plantations across Jamaica in a carefully planned uprising. The fighting lasted eighteen months. It wrecked the island’s sugar production and required Britain to divert ships and regiments from other fronts of the Seven Years War. Tacky’s Revolt remains legendary in Jamaica. But for all its heroism and hope, this slave rising seemed to follow a familiar pattern. Rebel slaves killed masters and torched isolated plantations, but they could not long withstand the organized firepower that the slave-owning state sent against them. The rebels became divided among themselves; many were betrayed by fellow slaves or by runaway Maroons, who judged the rising both hopeless and dangerous. The longest stage of Tacky’s Revolt involved the hunting down and grisly execution of fugitives in the hills. Were slave uprisings just spasms of fury inexorably followed by brutal suppression?

Brown, a professor at Harvard University, complexifies that image by relentless attention to the (brilliantly mapped) geography of the conflict and to every scrap of evidence about the rebels’ lives and strategies. Defining slavery as a perpetual state of war among slavers and the enslaved, he redefines Tacky’s Revolt as a truly Atlantic conflict, a struggle that created “complex patterns of alliance and antagonism” that crossed oceans and empires.

In Brown’s hands, Africa becomes a group of societies deeply enmeshed in the slave wars, not a blank space from which slave labour simply emerged. Warring states survived by exporting slaves to pay for the arms they needed, and then were drawn into ever more slave sales to fund expanding wars. In the process, a mix of cultures, languages, and rivalries was transferred to Jamaica, and would‑be rebels shaped new alliances across widely scattered plantations. Their own histories might have left the slaves as divided as the Nahuatl facing Cortés or Indian princes battling the East India Company. But in 1760, rebel leaders knew Jamaica’s sugar profits were tied to Britain’s fate in the imperial wars. French and Spanish colonists, slaveholders themselves on adjacent coasts, were in a global struggle with the British and might aid a revolt that could seize and hold ground in the colony. Tacky’s Revolt drew on the fury always simmering in the slave barracks, but it was timed to exploit a moment of Britain’s vulnerability amid a global war. Apongo becomes not some romantic prince tragically enslaved but one of many plantation labourers who brought with them experience of war and a deep awareness of how violence could turn masters into slaves and perhaps vice versa.

Intricately mapping each of the linked but local uprisings across Jamaica and relating them to tides in the global struggle, Brown demonstrates how the rebels applied strategic concepts mastered in wars an ocean away, some moving to defensible redoubts in the hills, others urging the need to hold an outlet to the sea. He shows how they acted on motives and opportunities as global and complex as those of the military officers and planter militias who moved to contain and kill them.

Brown’s one handicap is that he found no equivalent, either in Africa or in the Caribbean, of the Mughal poets and historians or the Nahuatl annalists. To reach those whom he seeks to understand, he must tease evidence of motivations, alliances, and strategies out of the enslavers’ bigoted and biased records. He makes Tacky’s Revolt a tour de force of research, theory, and historical imagination that transforms anonymous labouring slaves into actors of tragic majesty in an intricate conflict.

Topics on the short list of ten books for the 2020 Cundill Prize ranged from Cromwell’s England to twentieth-century Palestine, from Middle Eastern rivalries to the dispossession of Indigenous Americans. The jury singled out three finalists that explore colonized and racialized peoples in the clashes of culture that underpinned colonialism around the world. None of the authors comes from the societies they write about. Dalrymple, from an aristocratic Scots family, evokes oppressed India. Townsend, a white professor raised in New York City, seeks the Nahuatl beneath the overpowering narratives of their conquerors. Brown, an African American scholar and filmmaker raised in San Diego, California, explores the intricate loyalties of eighteenth-century Africans enslaved in the Caribbean. In the twenty-first century, when many argue that no one from privilege can or should speak for the colonized and oppressed, some might ask if these are all case studies in appropriation.

Townsend gives the best reply. She emphasizes, even embraces, the difficulties of cross-cultural understanding. She suggests, in not quite so many words, that in writing history, what we call cultural appropriation is unavoidable and essential. Even one’s own ancestors of two hundred years past are almost unfathomably strange to anyone alive today. If historians will not make the effort to bridge the chasms, who will? History, Townsend does say, is exciting not in spite of these challenges but because of them. The Nahuatl annalists, she declares, wanted posterity to hear them, and they said so clearly in their writings: “Do we ourselves not become both wiser and stronger every time we grasp the perspective of people whom we once dismissed?”

The Cundill jurors, with three impressive books about the violence and oppression that mark our world’s origins, may have been persuaded by that passion. By choosing William Dalrymple, they could have associated the prize with an admired and popular bestseller by a historian who is not a professor. By choosing Vincent Brown, they could have crowned the first person of colour for a prize that remains vulnerable to a #­CundillSoWhite hashtag. But it is Fifth Sun, the intersection of a gifted historian and a remarkable source, that they chose in December 2020.