Sivasundaram wins £25k British Academy Prize for Global Cultural Understanding

Sivasundaram wins £25k British Academy Prize for Global Cultural Understanding

Cambridge historian Sujit Sivasundaram's "truly powerful" book Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire (William Collins) has won the £25,000 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding.

Sivasundaram is professor of world history at the University of Cambridge and his book re-imagines the history of the British Empire with the southern seas at the heart of the story, as opposed to Europe and the Atlantic. Judges said his work "invites the reader to consider what this history looks like from the perspective of indigenous peoples in the Indian and Pacific oceans, showing how they asserted their place in the global South as the British Empire expanded".

The author was born and educated in Sri Lanka. His work is described as a "very different account of imperialism, centred on a part of the world that barely features in many histories of the period".    

Chair of judges Patrick Wright, emeritus professor of literature and history at King’s College and fellow of the British Academy, said: “Waves Across the South is a riot of ingenuity, a truly powerful and new history of revolutions and empires, re-imagined through the environmental lens of the sea. The jury was spellbound by Sivasundaram’s skill in combining compelling storytelling with meticulous research. Even as a work of world history it speaks directly to the politics and military interventions of today.” 

Professor Julia Black, president of the British Academy, added: “This prize celebrates the role of non-fiction literature in expanding our knowledge and understanding of cultural identity and difference. This year’s winning book is a masterclass in what can be achieved through exceptional research. On behalf of the British Academy, it is my honour to congratulate Sujit Sivasundaram for this extraordinary work – and for shining new light on a part of the world that has been mostly overlooked in the history of empire.” 

The winnner was chosen from a shortlist of four books that included: Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn (William Collins), Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Today by Eddie S Glaude Jr (Chatto & Windus) and Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities by Mahmood Mamdani (The Belknap Press).

The winner in 2020 was Hazel V Carby for Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands (Verso).