The shortlist for the Wolfson History Prize 2020, the most valuable non-fiction writing prize in the UK, was announced on 29 April, recognising the best factual history writing from the past year. Gonville & Caius College Fellow Professor David Abulafia, Emeritus Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge, and a former Chairman of the Cambridge History Faculty was nominated for The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans. His previous books include Frederick II, The Western Mediterranean Kingdoms and The Great Sea, which won numerous awards and has been translated into a dozen languages. In 2003 he was made Commendatore dell'Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana in recognition of his work on Italian and Mediterranean history.
The Boundless Sea is an exploration of the relationship between mankind and the seas throughout history, tracing our interaction with the oceans from the Polynesians of the Pacific, one of the earliest seafaring societies, to now. The judges described it as “A remarkable book which through immense and impeccable research helps us to understand humanity’s relationship with the waters on which our future depends. A sweeping global survey.”
Commenting on the book’s shortlist, Professor Abulafia said, “Being shortlisted delights me because it makes me think that I have achieved my goal of communicating with a large and broad audience. I passionately believe that historians should write not just for one another but for the wider public. Not merely is there great enthusiasm for works of history, but understanding how we have come to be as we are now is vital in an age of ever more intense globalization accompanied by climate change and indeed pandemic."
This year’s shortlist has a distinctly global focus, with five of the six titles exploring non-British history. International topics covered in the shortlist range from a human history of the oceans, to an exploration of Chaucer’s relationship with Europe, to a history of West Africa from the rise of the slave trade to the age of revolution, to looking at Anglo-Indian relations through the untold history of the first All India cricket team, to a seminal study of the impact of the Bible on world religions and cultures. Meanwhile, the only exclusively British history on the 2020 shortlist sheds light on the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper. The shortlist demonstrates the incredible breadth and scale in recent historical writing.
The winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2020 will be announced on Monday 15 June 2020 in a virtual ceremony, and will be awarded £40,000, with each of the shortlisted authors receiving £4,000.
This article was adapted from a piece on the Yours Cambridge website.
Image: Professor David Abulafia taken by Marit Hommedal