Nandini Das is the proud winner of the 11th British Academy Book Prize for her book, ‘Courting India: England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire’. Professor Das 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, in her debut book.
The British Academy noted: “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.”
In her acceptance speech, Professor Das said, “I began Courting India as a reassessment of the origins of some of the most fundamental assumptions about cultural differences between Europe and Asia, assumptions that drove imperial ambition and colonial violence in their time, assumptions that continue to throw their long shadow across the inexorability with which we continue to move into greater and yet greater violence and dissonance today. Yet possibilities of understanding and exchange cropped up, sometimes almost despite the actors and agents involved, in the interstices of those accreted assumptions. I want to dedicate this award to that possibility — of contact, of exchange, of understanding, between individuals — that has always so stubbornly persisted, then, and now.”
Her work has been recognized for its significant contribution to understanding global cultural dynamics. As the winner, Das will be awarded a prize of £25,000 (US$ 30286). Das serves as a professor of Early Modern English Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford.