Six Former Winners of the Cundill History Prize Reflect on What the Future Holds

In honor of the 2023 Cundill History Prize next week, we asked six former winners of the prize a few questions.


Tiya Miles, 2022 Winner

What occupies you at the moment? What are you working on?

Concerns about world crises occupy me now, along with the conviction that we must resist despair. I view history (meaning events of the past as well as our endeavor to faithfully reconstruct and interpret those events) as a resource for understanding and developing solutions for today’s problems. All That She Carried wove thoughts about climate change and the treatment of refugees into an analysis of Black women’s experiences of enslavement in the nineteenth century U.S. Currently, I am working on projects that focus on environmental history and the capacity for people, past and present, to act with nature and the future in mind.

We are living through momentous times. How can you keep a historical perspective when change is happening at such speed?

I find it comforting to remember that the historical figures I study also felt they were living in times of tremendous, destabilizing, and frightening change. Nevertheless, they carried on with the things that they felt mattered, making consequential and imperfect choices that we now find instructive.

Have you observed any trends in history writing recently? What excites you about these?

Last spring, I participated in a fabulous conference at the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library in Harlem. Two Black women scholars—Michelle Commander and Natasha Lightfoot—organized the event. The theme was archives and affect. All the attendees were invested not only in meeting the archive with fierceness and creativity, but also in acknowledging their personal thoughts and emotions emergent from those archival encounters. I expect that we will see more of this trend toward holistic archival practice that consciously registers and reports on the multidimensionality of that work. Relatedly, in my courses on slavery, Black history, and Indigenous history, I am finding that students welcome the chance to make things in relation to and reflective of their archival research. They have been sewing quilts, carving mortars and pestles from wood, cooking heritage foods, and embroidering maps. These activities help to bring history to life for them, to increase their personal investment, and to deepen their understanding. It is a joy to watch students create.

You are very encouraging of the next generation of historians. If more and more of them do what you are doing, putting a spotlight and those neglected and discounted in mainstream history—how might the discipline itself change?

The discipline is always changing, which is fitting since the object of our study is change over time. Historians have been shining their lights onto the lives of marginalized social groups and “ordinary” people since before I was born. I have benefitted intellectually from the mid-and-late 20th century booms in social history, Black studies, ethnic studies, women’s history, public history, and the list goes on. I have also gained a sense of tradition and permission from the narrative turn in academic historical writing, which I would date to the 1980s and 1990s. Scholars always stand on the shoulders of others, and we need to be ready to hoist the next generation up onto ours.


Marjoleine Kars, 2021 Winner

What occupies you at the moment? What are you working on?

I am working on a microhistory of an African man named Accara whom I can trace from his forced migration as a teenager from West Africa to Berbice in 1742 to his death at age 90 as a free man in Suriname in 1817. Along the way he is enslaved for 20 years, a leader in the 1763 Berbice slave rebellion, a slave hunter for the Dutch, an army drummer in the Dutch Republic, a Maroon fighter in Suriname, and a personal servant in the Hague, before ending up as a slave-owning pensioner in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. I am fascinated with Accara because he employs so many radically different strategies to become his own master, yet he can never really escape slavery and racism.

Have you observed any trends in history writing recently? What excites you about these?

One recent trend I am very interested in is historians writing their own family history. Their work combines investigative memoir, historical reconstruction, and narrative nonfiction. While I am not doing such research myself, I am teaching a course called “History Near and Dear,” in which students dig into an aspect of their family history or local history that intrigues them. I hope that by writing themselves into history, students become more interested in thinking about historical and emotional truths, about how we know what we know, and about how larger forces that may seem irrelevant to their lives, affect them.

You have been swinging between countries, from the US to the Netherlands, where you grew up, back to the US. How does your location influence your work?

In both countries, slavery is part of a public debate, but in very different ways. In the US, black history and diversity work are under attack while in The Netherlands the government recently apologized for slavery and the slave trade, and the king asked for forgiveness for his ancestors’ role in both. There is an upswing in research about slavery in The Netherlands, based on rich, and underutilized, Dutch sources and a national slavery museum is in the works. Historians are increasingly studying Dutch national history and Dutch colonial history together, rather than seeing them as two unrelated fields. My work is stimulated both by the urgency of reaffirming slavery and racism as constituent components of the American past and by the promise of greater public understanding of their central role in Dutch history.


Camilla Townsend, 2020 Winner

What occupies you at the moment? What are you working on?

Many people responded to Fifth Sun by saying that the work had convinced them that the Aztecs were people much like any other people. But they also pushed me to spend more time considering the role of human sacrifice in their culture. I decided to return to the Nahuatl-language sources and pull from them absolutely everything that I could that touched on religious matters, whether relating to human sacrifice or any other element of spiritual life.

What can we expect next from Camilla Townsend?

The sources did not disappoint: I have found that we can learn much about Aztec religion if we at least temporarily exclude Spanish voices, and just read the statements in Nahuatl that I have collected. In about a year, I will be publishing a new book called Aztec Myths with Thames & Hudson.


Julia Lovell, 2019 Winner

What occupies you at the moment? What are you working on?

I’ve just finished work on an exhibition at the British Museum, on China’s long 19th century (1796-1912) as told through its material culture. It’s a period of huge turbulence, substantially caused by the impact of Western and Japanese imperialism. It was a privilege to try to narrate this history through objects as well as words, and to work with scholars from all over the world—including of course many of East Asian heritage—to draw out its dramatic stories and characters, from grandiloquent, reforming empresses to revolutionary feminists.

What can we expect next from Julia Lovell?

I’m working on a history of Chinese archaeology, a study of how the modern, scientific study of antiquity has moulded political, social and cultural identity in China over the past 120 years. Across many Chinese social strata, a sense of China as an ancient, continuous civilisation is fundamental to cultural and political pride. Harvard’s Rowan Flad recently argued that this is a golden age for Chinese archaeological discovery, and yet stunning excavations receive little public attention in Western countries. I’m hoping very much, post-Covid, to visit in person emblematic excavations, through which I can build a history of how interpretations of the deep past have shaped China’s sense of itself today.


Maya Jasanoff, 2018 Winner

What occupies you at the moment? What are you working on?

I’m writing a book about the human preoccupation with ancestry, from the earliest recorded genealogies in ancient times to the DNA tests of today. It’s a sprawling project that takes me into all sorts of areas hitherto unfamiliar to me, and I’m loving the chance to read widely and deeply in phenomenal scholarship produced by so many generations before and alongside me.

We are living through momentous times. How can you keep a historical perspective when change is happening at such speed?

For millennia people have believed themselves to be living through tumultuous or transformative times. A historical perspective can be particularly helpful in a time of perceived change by highlighting what is and isn’t new, how, and for whom. There’s less geopolitical change in the 21st century so far than there was in the middle of the 20th, say, when European empires fractured into independent nation-states; for all that our lives have been transformed by the digital revolution, arguably there’s been less palpable change in living conditions for those in US, Canada, or Britain since 1980, for instance, than there was 100-150 years ago with the advent of widespread indoor plumbing and electricity; telegraphs, radios and telephones; and fossil-fuel-powered transportation. What is new now is the speed and scale of human-induced climate change (and widespread awareness of it)—which environmental history vitally explores.

As a teacher, you are seeing the next generation of historians take shape. What are their concerns? What is your advice to those just setting out?

The history wars raging on both sides of the Atlantic about legacies of empire, colonization, and slavery (among other things) attest to the urgency of the past in public life, and plenty of students remain eager to learn about it, especially from traditionally marginalized perspectives. Unfortunately, decades of funding cuts and shifting priorities in universities (in the US especially public ones, which have traditionally trained large numbers of secondary school teachers) have led to a sharp contraction in the number of tenure-track positions, especially for pre-modern history. So historians of the next generation rightly worry about whether or not they can find secure, decently paid jobs doing what they love. It is heartbreaking—and holds worrying downstream consequences for scholarship and society.


Daniel Beer, 2017 Winner

What are you working on at the moment, and why are you taking this particular angle?

I’m working on a new book entitled “The Emperor Hunt: Revolution and the Birth of Terrorism in Imperial Russia,” which examines the rise of the revolutionary movement in the reign of Alexander II and specifically the emergence of a terrorist faction committed to the assassination of the tsar. I argue that the regicide in 1881 transformed the politics of the Russian Empire and prevented the autocracy from evolving into a constitutional monarchy better able to weather the pressures of modernization and war that eventually destroyed it in 1917. I’ve become fascinated by the assassination as a moment in which spectacular acts of political violence were grasped as a way of reframing politics and ushering in a new world.

Your field of expertise, modern Russia, couldn’t be of more urgent concern. How are you keeping up with developments, as a historian, when history is happening in real time? Have you observed any trends in history writing, more generally, recently? What excites you about these?

The field has, perhaps unsurprisingly been in a state of ferment since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Given that Russia is no longer a safe country for Western scholars to visit (especially if they have been openly critical of the Russian government) and many also refuse to visit a country waging an illegal war of conquest historians are needing to learn—once again—how to research Russia without the access to archives and libraries which we had come to take for granted. There has also been an often uncomfortable process of re-examining the assumptions about Russia that informed much of our research. The tendency to see the Russians as synonymous with the empire or with the Soviet Union is now rightly being challenged by a more careful consideration of the place of the non-Russian peoples in both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and the extent to which their experience has been one of colonial domination from Moscow.

What can we learn about the country, as it now exists, by taking an informed historical perspective?

The very dark turn that Russia has taken over the last decade or so but especially since the invasion inevitably raise important questions about how much this new revanchist imperialism is embedded in deep cultural and historical trends that stretch back decades, even centuries. The Kremlin has set great store by confecting historical narratives that legitimise its claims to Ukraine and project an image of national imperial greatness, a country and a people besieged by enemies without and within. A good example would be the relentless glorification of the Second World War and its appropriation by the Kremlin as tool popular mobilization and control within Russia. It’s only by a careful and considered examination of the historical record that these politicized narratives can be challenged, even if the crackdown within Russia make that very difficult at the moment.

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