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2020 has been a landmark year for many reasons but we are celebrating a different sort of historical record as three OUP authors have won the trifecta of history prizes.
Caleb McDaniel, David Abulafia, and Camilla Townsend secured the Pulitzer, Wolfson, and Cundill history prizes respectively. This ‘triple crown’ is a first for OUP and we are delighted that these accolades will help new readers discover these well-deserving scholars.
Sweet Taste of Liberty
For over a hundred years the Pulitzer Prize for History has been awarded to the most distinguished book published that year on US history. This year the judges presented the medal to Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America by Caleb McDaniel. Using fresh archival evidence Sweet Taste of Liberty tells the epic and haunting story of an enslaved woman, Henrietta Wood, and her quest for justice. As the Pulitzer committee wrote in their citation, this is 'a masterfully researched meditation on reparations based on the remarkable story of a 19th century woman who survived kidnapping and re-enslavement to sue her captor.'
The Boundless Sea
The Wolfson History Prize is the UK’s premier history prize, recognizing works that combine meticulous scholarly research with an eye for the general readership. This year the prize was awarded to David Abulafia for The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans which OUP published in the US. The Boundless Sea narrates the story of humankind through our relationship with the various bodies of water that make up the majority of the planet. Judges praised the ‘immense and impeccable research’ that went into this ‘remarkable book’ that takes readers on a tour from the earliest seafaring societies – the Polynesians of the Pacific – to the giant container ships of today, which transport 80 per cent of world trade. The Boundless Sea is truly history on a grand scale; its perspective is bracingly different from previous accounts in its combination of panoramic and microscopic detail.
Finally, at the start of December, Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs was announced as the winner of the Cundill Prize for the work of history that best embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary merit and broad appeal. Chair of judges Peter Frankopan praised Fifth Sun as 'crisp and beautifully written' and a 'feat of high order, intellectually and imaginatively’. Drawing on the Nahuatl texts written by indigenous people, Fifth Sun focuses on the rich and complex history of the Mexica people, looking beyond the exoticized accounts of the Spanish conquistadors to reveal a fuller and more detailed picture of Aztec history. By going back to the previously neglected Nahuatl material, Townsend demonstrates what history writing can do at its best: enable us to examine the past in a new light.
While the three works are strikingly different in terms of their content, all are connected by a shared focus on new perspectives and on the recovery of a lost past. The authors pull off the difficult trick of producing books that are critically lauded and commercially successful in part because they write compelling prose. Congratulations to all the authors and the OUP teams that supported them.