Kars Emerges Winner of The Cundill Prize

n a digitally distributed winner’s ceremony hosted by CBC’s Nahlah Ayed at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts today (December 2), the McGill University-based Cundill History Prize has been awarded to University of Maryland historian Marjoleine Kars for Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast (New Press).

This year, Kars and her two sister finalists in the competition—Rebecca Clifford and Marie Favereau—have been awarded US$10,000 each. Kars, as winner, now receives the US$75,000 top prize, a purse that makes the Cundill what it describes as the lucrative nonfiction awards program in world publishing today.

In her acceptance comments during the digital event, Kars says, “I’m particularly happy that the prize went to a book about slavery, which is, after all, one of the foundational institutions of our modern world. The prestige of the Cundill Prize underscores the importance of Black history, the history of race and racism, which are at this moment particularly in the United States under attack.”

Her references, of course, are to heated objections to critical race theory, to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project: A New Origin Storyjust published in book form by Penguin Random House in the States on November 16—and to a broad and emotional debate underway on the place of and problems of racism, historically and in the nation’s contemporary political struggles.

Kars also points out in her comments that the rebellion she examines in her book “is so little known as a rebellion outside of Guyana. It’s the largest labor rising in the Caribbean before the ‘Age of Revolution’ … and I hope that the people in Guyana will feel in some measure supported in the fact that this book won the prize, and will see it as a form of recognition for what their ancestors went through.

“And largely, I hope people realize that there are amazing records in the archives in The Hague and in the United Kingdom about the history of Guyana. I hope that young people in the Caribbean will remember that these records are here, learn Dutch, and go look for themselves, so we can have more books written about this subject … from the people whose history this most rightfully is.”

Kars’ book is unusual in that its source material lies primarily in an archive of deeply details records of a 1763 slave rebellion in the Dutch colony of Berbice.

In his commentary on the jury’s choice of Blood on the River, the panel’s chair, Michael Ignatieff is quoted, saying, “Superbly researched and narrated, Marjoleine Kars’ Blood on the River achieves something remarkable: it transforms our understanding of two vitally important subjects—slavery and empire—and it tells a story so dramatic, so compelling that no reader will be able to put the book down.

“It was the unanimous choice of our jury.”

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