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Cambridge author wins British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding



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Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire by Cambridge historian Sujit Sivasundaram has won the ninth British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2021.

The cover of Waves Across the South. Picture: Lloyd Mann, University of Cambridge
The cover of Waves Across the South. Picture: Lloyd Mann, University of Cambridge

Praised for “spellbinding” work of ingenuity and meticulous research, the book was yesterday (Tuesday, October 26) announced as the winner by chair of the jury, Patrick Wright FBA, during an online celebration hosted by the British Academy.

In Waves Across the South, Sujit Sivasundaram – professor of world history at the University of Cambridge – re-imagines the history of the British Empire with the southern seas at the heart of the story.

The history of the Empire is commonly centred around Europe and the Atlantic, yet Sivasundaram 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.

Author Sujit Sivasundaram. Picture: Lloyd Mann, University of Cambridge
Author Sujit Sivasundaram. Picture: Lloyd Mann, University of Cambridge

Sivasundaram, who was born and educated in Sri Lanka, brings together a wealth of archival material to recover an extraordinary collection of stories – from Maori mapmakers and the Parsi shipbuilders of Bombay, to the sealers who lived with Aboriginal women in Tasmania. The result is a very different account of imperialism, centred on a part of the world that barely features in many histories of the period.

He will receive £25,000 for winning the prize. Commenting on behalf of the jury, Professor 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.”

The cover of Waves Across the South
The cover of Waves Across the South

Wave Across the South, published by William Collins, is Sujit Sivasundaram’s second book. The first, Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2013.

The British Academy Book Prize, formerly known as the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize, was established in 2013.

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