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British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2023: Winner Announced

By Grace Briggs-Jones, Clara Garnier-Barsanti, Benedetta Giordani and Maria Sadek


On 31 October, Professor Nandini Das was awarded the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding. This prestigious prize was established in 2013 by the British Academy – the UK's national academy for the humanities and social sciences – in collaboration with Professor Nayef Al-Rodhan. Now in its 11th year, the prize aims to recognise outstanding non-fiction works that contribute to the understanding of world cultures and combine original research with a captivating writing style. The books submitted for the prize cover a variety of subjects such as archaeology, philosophy and languages. Each year, a jury panel composed of experts and academics choose books that champion understanding and highlight interconnections between different cultures, all while being accessible to a wide range of demographics.


Let’s find out a little bit more about this year’s winner! Nandini Das grew up in India before moving to England to study; she is now a professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford. Das is also the co-editor of The Cambridge History of Travel Writing and regularly presents television and radio programmes on the BBC. Das’ debut novel, Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire, was announced as the 2023 winner of the British Academy Book Prize. It details the fascinating history of Thomas Roe who arrived in India in 1616 as James I’s ambassador; Roe was astonished by the wealth and culture of the Mughal Empire. Das examines the four years Roe spent amongst the empire and situates his experience within the wider context of global trade which spanned from Russia to Virginia and from West Africa to Indonesia. Her debut book paints the Mughal Empire in meticulous detail, exploring the art, literature and sights and sounds of Imperial India in contrast to Jacobean London. By doing so, Das not only explores one of the greatest and richest empires in the world, but also offers a rich and radical challenge to our understanding of Britain and its empire.


Shortlisted entries


However, the winning experience can only be measured by the level of the shortlisted ones, let’s look at the 2023 contenders. Red Memory, Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan is an indelible exploration of the Cultural Revolution. Exploring the stories of those who are driven to confront the era, Red Memory questions: how do you live with yourself when the worst is over? A must-read for those who are interested in the turbulent decade that continues to propel and shape China to this day.


Another shortlisted entry is The Violence of Colonial Photography by Daniel Foliard, which draws on a wealth of visual materials, from soldiers’ personal albums to government archives, creating a new account of how conflict photography developed in the decades leading up to WWI. Foliard also reveals how photographs could escape the intentions of their creators and be used as a means of pushing back against the oppression of colonial subjects. Look at the late 19th century through the eyes of the French and British empires in this must-read book.


Black Ghosts of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation by Kris Manjapra also made the shortlist and unearths disturbing truths about the Age of Emancipations. Manjapra argues that Black people were dispossessed by the moves that were made to free them and that emancipation codified the existing racial caste system, rather than destroying it. Paradigm-shifting, lucid and courageous, this book shines a light on the enigma of slavery’s supposed death.


Irene Vellejo’s Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World is a prize-winning, international bestseller that chronicles literary culture in the ancient world and the heroic effects that ensured its survival over thousands of years. Take a trip to the battlefields of Alexandra the Great, explore the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius and Cleopatra’s palaces to trace the history of the written word.


Ritual by Dimitris Xygalatas finishes the shortlist and leads us on an enlightening tour through the shadowy realm of human behaviour. Ritual reveals the deep and subtle mechanisms that soothe, excite, divide and unite us. But above all, Xygalatas finds that our need for ritual is primordial and that it can help us connect to each other, find meaning and discover ourselves. A powerful new perspective that deserves a place on your to-be-read list.


The quality of the nominated books and their popularity in the mainstream world goes to show, once again, the importance of the role thinkers play in our society. Academia was first intended as a society lab, a place in which people could have time and space to question, criticise, examine, destroy and rebuild society, only to bring the solution of these thoughts to the world. The success of these books, the depth of their questions and the power of their answers if we, as readers, accept to take them in, are immeasurable. Thank you to the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding for highlighting this and while we wait for next year’s list, we’ll endeavour to transform our current society.


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