The Wolfson 2020 History Prize Winners: A Review

The Wolfson History Prize is the UK’s most prestigious prize for History writers. Founded in 1972, the prize annually recognizes and celebrates authors who combine excellent research and readability. The Wolfson Foundation pride themselves on contributing to the historical debate, which they believe is crucial for a healthy society. The winner and three shortlisted nominees spoke at a special celebration event organised by the University of York’s Festival of Ideas. The speakers, David Abulafia, Toby Green, Marion Turner and Prashant Kidambi, introduced their research within the existing historiography and set out the contemporary relevance of their topic. 

The first speaker of the evening was David Abulafia, the winner of this year’s Wolfson Prize with his book The Boundless Sea, a human history of the oceans. Abulafia described his fresh approach to marine history by looking at individual stories and the trade of specific objects between continents and cultures. The Boundless Sea provides a markedly different perspective to the existing determinist approach as set out by Braudel in La Méditerranée. Abulafia presented his book departing from existing research because he is considering a single body of water, ‘the boundless sea’ instead of ‘the boundless seas;’ whereas Historians have tended to compartmentalise the oceans (above is the example of Braudel focusing on the Mediterranean sea).The new angle on maritime history allowed Abulafia to consider the impact on humanity as the people sailing and trading did not compartmentalise the sea into measurable chunks. Abulafia concluded with one surprising thing he had come across during his research that Polynesian travellers in the 1100’s sailed the Pacific with an efficiency and knowledge that far outsripped future European sailors, Abulafia called this the ‘most impressive achievement in this history of navigation.’ 

Toby Green’s A fistful of Shells transforms the view of West Africa, drawing not only on written histories but also oral histories, archeology and architecture to create a new perspective on Africa as a global player in pre-European history. Green’s interest in West African history began 25 years ago, since then he has visited and studied in Africa multiple times. His writing challenges the marginalisation of West African history, partoualry by Hegel’s colonial perspective that West Africa is ‘out of history’ and not relevant to global history. A fistful of Shells uses an economic lens to explain why the modern West-African economy struggles and probes the deeper question, why has this economic disempowerment become normalised? Green fleshes out his argument with a range of primary sources, making the point that history is not just a manuscript. The talk concluded with Green tracing the economic issues right to today as in 2020, emergency loans are being thrust onto the continent by private creditors and it will be impoverished Africans expected to finance post-Pandemic growth. 

The next speaker was Marion Turner, introducing Chaucer: A European Life where she challenges preconceptions of Chaucer and his ‘englishness.’ Turner is occupied with the important spaces of Chaucer’s life, tracking his movements into Europe. Furthermore, Turner followed in his footsteps and traveled to Northern Spain which was the Kingdom of Navarre in the 14th century. When Chaucer visited in 1366 he encountered Jewish and Islamic communities and Turner argues that his exposure to different cultures made him considerate of different modes of life outside an anglocentric point of view. Chaucer: A European Life revitalises Chaucer, hallowed as the ‘Father of English Literature’ with a fresh continental lens illustrating that Italian frescoes and Navarren communities fired his imagination.    

The final speaker of the evening was Prashant Kidambi describing the process behind Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire, this book tells the story of how the idea of India was formed on the cricket pitch before India became a dependent nation and rejected imperial rule. Kidambi began his research with a national story in mind, trying to find a nationalist consciousness in the Indian cricket team of 1911. However, as Kidambi progressed he realised this was really a global history and needed to be considered in a wider imperial context. Although, Cricket Country is written in a narrative form and Kidambi is rejecting the macro approach of global history, instead he focuses on the micro, telling a global history from the local perspective. This is achieved through tales of individual sportsmen on the team like Prince Ranji the captain one of the most accomplished and celebrated batsmen in the world but struggling under questions of National Identity (he played for England), displacement and true belonging which spoke to the pre-war Indian nation at large.     

Each of the speakers gave intellectual and stimulating talks on their respective work and there was some commonality between them. Each author offered a new technique to examine and interact with global history, they all opened up their research to beyond ‘the manuscript’ of historical sources and explored how objects, space and individual stories contribute to huge events. In 2020, a year of isolation and disconnectivity, their work illustrated that now, more than ever, historians must be conscious of how people are connected across social groups, national borders and oceans. 

Signed copies of all the speaker’s books are available at a local York bookseller: 

Youtube link to full event:

Written By: Mary Taylor Lewis


Braudel, Fernand. La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II. Paris: A. Colin, 1966.