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Nira Wickramasinghe wins John F. Richards Prize

Professor Nira Wickramasinghe has won the American Historical Association John F. Richards Prize in South Asian History for her book Slave in a Palanquin. Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka' (Columbia University Press: New York 2020).

The John F. Richards Prize is awarded annually to the most distinguished work of scholarship on South Asian history published in English. This year's winner is Slave in a Palanquin, in which Wickramasinghe uncovers the traces of slavery in the history and memory of the Indian Ocean  world, focusing  on Sri Lanka as a crossroads under both Dutch and British colonial rule. The title Slave in a Palanquin refers to an enslaved man in Jaffna who rode in the palanquin of his master.

Wickramasinghe: ‘I explore moments of revolt in the lives of enslaved people and reconstruct individual lives from sources that have remained obscure until now. What these subaltern lives reveal is a picture full of ambiguities and ambivalences. I am particularly interested in the nature of resistance and the fallacy of notions of authenticity.  Resistance is there in all kinds of acts, such as that of an enslaved man in Jaffna who rode in his master’s palanquin, and clearly must be understood not as opposition, but as creative actions of social beings who have their own ideas about justice, right and wrong. Through case studies of the enslaved, my book aims to question notions of authenticity and purity and to undermine the presumption of a singular origin, which I think is the root of all violence between different communities in society.’

Huge honour

The  John F. Richards Prize recognizes depth of research, methodological innovation, conceptual originality, and literary excellence. Wickramasinghe: ‘I strive to write history that is based on archival research, rooted in a deep understanding of a place and time, yet critical, theorized and with a global inflection. In this book I experimented with a storied articulation of ideas, to borrow Saidiya Hartman’s term. In each chapter through the stories of individual men and women I address a specific issue,  race and blackness, bodily violence, caste and slavery, free and unfree labor, and the meaning and performance of freedom. This allows me to move Sri Lanka to the center of  key debates in world history.

It is a huge honour and so gratifying that the labour and care that went into the book is recognized by the AHA, which represents professional historians around the world. It’s the first time that the J.F. Richards prize in South Asian history has been awarded to an author located in a European university, so I feel really privileged. I am very grateful to my editor at Columbia University Press for nominating my book and to all my friends and colleagues who contributed in different ways’.

The John F. Richards Prize is annually awarded to the most distinguished work of scholarship on South Asian history published in English. The award is an initiative of the American Historical Association, the largest professional organization serving historians in all fields and all professions.

Nira Wickramasinghe is Chair/Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies. Her work  focuses on identity politics and everyday life under colonialism in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

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