Books

American author Camilla Townsend wins $100K Cundill History Prize for her book about ancient Aztecs

The writer and historian won the 2020 Cundill History Prize, an award that recognizes the year's most accomplished work of historical nonfiction, for her book Fifth Sun.

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs gives an authentic historical voice to Indigenous Mexicans.

Camilla Townsend is an American historian and distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University (Oxford University Press)

American historian Camilla Townsend has won the 2020 Cundill History Prize for her book Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.

The $75,000 U.S. ($96,691 Cdn) prize recognizes the year's best history nonfiction writing in English.

Fifth Sun tells the history of the Aztecs, based solely on texts written by the Indigenous people of Mexico. In this revisionist history, Townsend explores how a once-powerful nation, in the face of conquest, found new ways to survive. 

Townsend will be interviewed by CBC Radio One program Ideas on Thursday, Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. ET (8:30 p.m. NT).

"Fifth Sun is a work of breathtaking originality, accomplishment and importance. Camilla Townsend revolutionizes how we should look at Aztec society," said British historian and jury chair Peter Frankopan in a statement.

"Not many books completely transform how we look at the past. This is one of those that does."

The 2020 jury is comprised of Frankopan, American journalist and 2012 Cundill Prize winner Anne Applebaum, veteran Canadian journalist Lyse Doucet, American history professor Eliga Gould and British Sri Lankan historian Sujit Sivasundaram.

"Now, more than ever, as we ponder an uncertain future, we need to delve into what's gone before, been thought and done before," said Doucet in a statement.

"Fifth Sun is a magical book, the kind where you find yourself pausing on pages to absorb the beauty of words and imagery. They transport you — back to the 16th century. [Townsend's book] not only retells history, it changes it."

Townsend is a professor of history at Rutgers University. Her books include Malintzin's Choices, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma and The Annals of Native America.

The Cundill History Prize is managed by McGill University.

The two other finalists were American author and academic Vincent Brown for Tacky's Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, which looks at the one of the largest slave revolts in the 18th century, and Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple for The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, which explores how the East India Company became one of the biggest businesses in the world.

They each will receive $10,000 U.S ($12,892 Cdn).

Last year's winner was Julia Lovell for Maoism: A Global History.

Previous winners also include Maya Jasanoff, Daniel Beer and Susan Pedersen.

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