India-born author Nandini Das has been named the winner of the 2023 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, a leading international non-fiction prize worth GBP 25,000, for her book ‘Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire’.
The U.K.-based academic’s debut work, described as the “true origin story of Britain and India told through England’s first diplomatic mission to the Mughal courts”, was revealed as this year’s winner at a ceremony at the British Academy in London on Tuesday evening.
As a Professor in the English faculty at the University of Oxford, the 49-year-old author has sought to present a new perspective on the origins of empire through the story of the arrival of the first English ambassador in India, Sir Thomas Roe, in the early 17th century.
“By using contemporary sources by Indian and British political figures, officials and merchants she has given the story an unparalleled immediacy that brings to life these early encounters and the misunderstandings that sometimes threatened to wreck the whole endeavour,” said Professor Charles Tripp, Chair of the prize jury.
“At the same time, she grants us a privileged vantage point from which we can appreciate how a measure of mutual understanding did begin to emerge, even though it was vulnerable to the ups and downs of Mughal politics and to the restless ambitions of the British,” he said.
He described how through her beautiful writing and exceptional research, the jury was drawn to the contrast between an impoverished, insecure Britain and the flourishing, confident Mughal Empire and the often-amusing, sometimes querulous exchanges between their various representatives.
“Moreover, we were reminded through this story of the first ambassadorial mission of the value of international diplomacy, but also of the cultural minefields that surround it in ways that still have resonance today,” he added.
The British Academy Book Prize, formerly known as the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize, was established in 2013 to reward and celebrate the best works of non-fiction that demonstrate rigour and originality and have contributed to public understanding of other world cultures and their interaction.
Professor Julia Black, President of the British Academy, noted: “This is the British Academy’s 11th year of celebrating well-researched books that improve global cultural understanding. Every year, the need to understand each other across borders, boundaries and cultures seems ever more pressing. This year is no exception.
“The power of good writing and a well-told story in getting people to understand each other should not be underestimated. This book does just that, drawing on the best of the academic and the literary traditions to shed light on how we are today.”
Ms. Das will receive GBP 25,000 for winning the prize and each of the shortlisted works, including ‘Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation’ by Caribbean-born Kris Manjapra of mixed African and Indian parentage, will receive GBP 1,000 each.
The others making up this year’s shortlist unveiled in September included ‘Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution’ by Tania Branigan; ‘The Violence of Colonial Photography‘’by Daniel Foliard; ‘Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World’ by Irene Vallejo; and ‘Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living’ by Dimitris Xygalatas.
The 2023 judging panel for the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding included of Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed FBA, Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics; Professor Rebecca Earle, food historian and Professor of History at the University of Warwick; Fatima Manji, award-winning broadcaster; and Professor Gary Younge Hon, the award-winning author, broadcaster and Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester.