'Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire' by Nandini Das wins the £25,000 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2023

31 Oct 2023

Hardback book of 'Courting India' photographed upright on a glass surface

Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire by Nandini Das is today named as the winner of the 11th British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding. The announcement was made by Chair of the Book Prize judging panel, Professor Charles Tripp FBA, at a celebration at the British Academy.

In this remarkable debut, Nandini Das – Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the English faculty at the University of Oxford – presents an important new perspective on the origins of empire through the story of the arrival of the first English ambassador in India, Sir Thomas Roe, in the early 17th century.

The book recasts the story of Britain and India, moving us beyond a Eurocentric telling with an even-handed, entertaining tale of the encounter of two cultures and the ambitions, misunderstandings and prejudices that came to the fore. In this genuinely ground-breaking work, Indian-raised Das challenges our understanding of this pivotal pre-colonial period. Drawing on a rich variety of sources – literature, the memoirs of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, the journals and correspondence of Sir Thomas Roe, plus the archives of the East India Company – Das invites the reader to get to grips with the making of history, and its narration from both perspectives.

Commenting on behalf of the judging panel, Professor Charles Tripp said:

“Nandini Das has written the true origin story of Britain and India. By using contemporary sources by Indian and by British political figures, officials and merchants she has given the story an unparalleled immediacy that brings to life these early encounters and the misunderstandings that sometimes threatened to wreck the whole endeavour. At the same time, she grants us a privileged vantage point from which we can appreciate how a measure of mutual understanding did begin to emerge, even though it was vulnerable to the ups and downs of Mughal politics and to the restless ambitions of the British.

“Through her beautiful writing and exceptional research, the judging panel was drawn to the contrast between an impoverished, insecure Britain and the flourishing, confident Mughal Empire and the often-amusing, sometimes querulous exchanges between their various representatives. Moreover, we were reminded through this story of the first ambassadorial mission of the value of international diplomacy, but also of the cultural minefields that surround it in ways that still have resonance today.”

Professor Julia Black, President of the British Academy added:

“On behalf of the British Academy, it is my honour to congratulate Nandini Das on this exceptional work.

“This is British Academy’s 11th year of celebrating well-researched books that improve global cultural understanding. Every year, the need to understand each other across borders, boundaries and cultures seems ever more pressing. This year is no exception.

“The power of good writing and a well-told story in getting people to understand each other should not be underestimated. This book does just that, drawing on the best of the academic and the literary traditions to shed light on how we are today.”

Nandini Das will receive £25,000 for winning the prize. Each of the shortlisted writers will receive £1,000.

Courting India was chosen from a shortlist of six books that included: Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan; The Violence of Colonial Photography by Daniel Foliard; Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation by Kris Manjapra; Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World by Irene Vallejo; and Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living by Dimitris Xygalatas.

Professor Charles Tripp was joined on the 2023 Book Prize judging panel by Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed FBA, Professor Rebecca Earle FBA, Fatima Manji, and Professor Gary Younge Hon FBA.

The British Academy Book Prize, formerly known as the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize, was established in 2013, to reward and celebrate the best works of non-fiction that demonstrate rigour and originality, and have contributed to public understanding of other world cultures and their interaction.

The winner in 2022 was When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold by the Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zerán. The book has since been acquired by Netflix in association with the Chilean production company Fábula, and a feature film entitled La Homicida is to be released in 2024.

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