Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs wins Cundill History Prize

Camilla Townsend receives US$75,000 – the largest reward for a work of non-fiction in English – for the first-ever history based solely on texts written by the Aztec people

The winner of the 2020 Cundill History Prize is Camilla Townsend, Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University, for Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (Oxford University Press USA). The announcement was made during the virtual Winner Ceremony of the leading international history prize, administered by McGill University. Townsend receives US$75,000 – the largest reward for a work of non-fiction in English.

Camilla Townsend, winner of the 2020 Cundill History Prize

The event was broadcast live in partnership with History Hit and concluded the inaugural Cundill History Prize Festival, a two-day program of virtual events for a global audience.

Townsend is an award-winning historian and the author of numerous books, including Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, and The Annals of Native America: How the Nahuas of Colonial Mexico Kept Their History Alive.

The story of the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes’ fateful meeting with Aztec emperor Moctezuma in 1519 – and what happened afterward – has been told many times, but never like in Fifth Sun. Previously, the only accessible viewpoint on Aztec history was that of the Spanish. Townsend used previously obscure and rarely consulted Nahuatl language sources – detailed histories written by the Indigenous people of Mexico – to create an engaging revisionist history that gives an authentic historical voice to the native Mexicans of centuries ago.

“Camilla Townsend revolutionizes how we should look at Aztec society before, during and after the arrival of Europeans in Central America,” says Peter Frankopan, 2020 Chair of the Jury. “After more than 500 years, we are finally able to see history through the eyes of the Indigenous people themselves rather than those of their conquerors. Not many books completely transform how we look at the past. This is one of those that does.”

The Winner Ceremony also recognized the two runners-up of this year’s prize: Vincent Brown, Professor of American History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, for Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War; and the award-winning, best-selling British historian William Dalrymple, for The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East-India Company. They each receive a Recognition of Excellence Award and US$10,000.

“2020 was never going to be an ordinary year for the Cundill History Prize,” said Antonia Maioni, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at McGill University, at the conclusion of the Cundill History Prize Festival. “But as we started navigating the pandemic, we felt, perhaps more strongly than ever, how important a function our prize is playing in bringing the very best history writing to readers – as guidance, as perspective, as a grounding in historical fact when so much is in a constant, confusing shift.”