Camilla Townsend wins 2020 Cundill History Prize

Camilla Townsend, Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University, has been announced as this year's winner of the Cundill History Prize for her book Fifth Sun: A New History of Aztecs. The prize - worth US$75,000 - is awarded annually to the book that best embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal. 

Jury Chair Peter Frankopan announced Townsend's win during the prize's Virtual Finalist Ceremony, noting that Fifth Sun " a book that captivated all of us as jurors," and that Townsend "revolutionizes the way we look at Aztec peoples of Central America on the eve of and during the conquest by the Spanish from the end of the fifthteenth century onwards". The event, which was broadcast live in partnership with History Hit and hosted by Dan Snow, concluded the inaugural Cundill History Prize Festival. This two-day series of festival events included The Cundill Lecture—delivered by 2019 prize winner Julia Lowell—and The Cundill Forum, where the three prize finalists reflected on the complexities of addressing how real history interfaces with commemoration culture (or its reverse).

The two runners-up—Vincent Brown, Professor of American History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, for Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War; and the award-winning, best-selling British historian William Dalrymple, for The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East-India Company—each received a Recognition of Excellence Award and US$10,000.

Camilla Townsend is an award-winning historian who has authored numerous books, including Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of MexicoPocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, and The Annals of Native America: How the Nahuas of Colonial Mexico Kept Their History Alive, which has been awarded many prizes, including the Albert J. Beveridge Award awarded by the American Historical Association. She works in numerous languages, including Spanish and Nahuatl.

Townsend's book is crisp, it's beautifully written, it shows real passion, and also enormous expertise in dealing with languages that are not as well known by modern scholars as they should be, at never any point dumbing down to the reader what the complexities and challenges are in dealing with materials. We find a society that is much more complex, much richer, much more original, and very different to the ones that we'd have expected.
—Peter Frankopan, Jury Chair
"Fifth Sun is an elegant, surprising book, one that will make you see the Aztecs through their own eyes and force you to reconsider everything you thought you knew about their civilization.”
—Anne Applebaum, Juror
"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. The Aztecs were storytellers, but they would not recognise themselves in the accounts of others. Now their own story is so vividly brought to life in their own language, thanks to the scholarly insights and inspiration of Camilla Townsend. Her book not only retells history, it changes it.”
—Lyse Doucet, Juror
“Camilla Townsend’s gifts as a storyteller are as remarkable as her path-breaking research. Fifth Sun brings the Nahuatl-speaking inhabitants of sixteenth-century Mexico back to life, revealing how they lived and worked, what they believed and what they feared, and how, in the face of crushing defeat, they adapted, persevered, and survived. This is history at its very best, a landmark in the field.”
—Eliga Gould, Juror
"The richly evocative and deeply humane Fifth Sun will stay with me. As a landmark work, it combines brilliant scholarship in Nahuatl sources with an analytical assault which explodes pernicious myths. I will recommend it to anyone wishing to broaden the horizons of their historical imaginations; the reader will emerge changed by indigenous worlds."
—Sujit Sivasundaram, Juror
“2020 was never going to be an ordinary year for the Cundill History Prize. But as we started navigating the pandemic, we felt, perhaps more strongly than ever, how important a function our prize is playing in bringing the very best history writing to readers – as guidance, as perspective, as a grounding in historical fact when so much is in a constant, confusing shift. We are delighted to close our first ever virtual season with this week’s inaugural Cundill History Prize Festival – brought to you wherever you are in the world. The insights of our outstanding jurors, chaired by Peter Frankopan, have shone brightly through our programme. They have chosen three fantastically relevant finalists, and an exceptional winner, Camilla Townsend, who has written a transformative book that will change readers’ views the way every Cundill History Prize winner does: as a fantastic read.”
—Antonia Maioni, Dean of Arts
About The Cundill History Prize

Administered by McGill University, The Cundill History Prize is the leading international award for a book of non-fiction written in English. Each year, a US$75,000 prize is awarded to a book that embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal. Endowed by F. Peter Cundill, a distinguished McGill alumnus, philanthropist, and renowned global investor, the Cundill History Prize is open to books from anywhere in the world, regardless of the author’s nationality or place of residence, as well as works translated into English. Almost 400 titles are submitted by international trade and university publishers every year.

To learn more about The Cundill History Prize, please visit:

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