British historian Toby Green has won the £25,000 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2019 with his “treasure trove” book A Fistful of Shells (Allen Lane).
Green was announced as the winner of the British Academy’s non-fiction prize during a ceremony at the London venue on Wednesday night (30th October).
A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution tells the history of west Africa in a new light, dispelling the long-held myths that African history only began with the arrival of the Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries. It draws on two decades of research in nine countries, alongside oral histories, maps, letters, artefacts and the author’s own experience of collecting material across eight west African states.
Green, a senior lecturer at King's College London, argues that there is much more to the history of west Africa than the history of slavery and abolition. The coastal regions of West Africa were composed of kingdoms that were cosmopolitan, economically advanced and culturally sophisticated, trading far and wide with the West and beyond in a variety of currencies – including cowrie shells from which the book takes its name.
On behalf of the jury, Professor Ash Amin said: “A Fistful of Shells is a treasure trove of a book. Truly ground-breaking, it draws on years of work to tell another story of pre-colonial West Africa, a continually ignored continent. It changed the way in which the jury thought about Africa and helped us to better understand not just Africa but the way in which the world is changing right now. Finally, a detailed history that few westerners know but all ought to. Quite simply, an eye-opener.
“It was a very demanding task to separate the many merits of all the books on this year’s shortlist. Each one was the culmination of years of dedication and represents an illuminating contribution to global cultural understanding.”
Green saw off competition for the prize from The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah (Profile), How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini (Granta); Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell (The Bodley Head), Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided by Aanchal Malhotra (Hurst) and Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture by Ed Morales (Verso).
Amin was joined on the jury by historian and political scientist Rana Mitter, social anthropologist Dame Henrietta Moore, broadcaster Professor Patrick Wright and writer Madeleine Bunting.
The Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize was established in 2013, to reward and celebrate the best works of non-fiction that have contributed to global cultural understanding and illuminated the interconnections and divisions that shape cultural identity worldwide. Last year’s winner was Kapka Kassabova for Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (Granta).