Some may ask what binds a book about an 18th-century French slave ship and another on the history of the Kashmir region.
The authors of both books were recently honored with the inaugural Yale Center for International and Area Studies Book Prizes and an award of $5,000 each to defray the costs of further research. Professors Robert Harms and Mridu Rai, both of whom have appointments in Yale’s History Department, received the awards in the Best Book and Best First Book categories, respectively, for their books, “Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade” and “Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir.”
YCIAS, the University’s premier institution for international studies, created the annual book prize to recognize scholarship on international topics by Yale faculty, YCIAS Director Ian Shapiro said.
“I wanted to in various ways signal that we wanted to give the faculty as much support in their research projects as possible,” he said.
The bulk of Harms’ research and teaching focuses on African history, but his prize-winning book — the product of five years of research — delves into a period of history that he had previously not explored. The book follows a round-trip voyage of one French slave ship, The Diligent, from Vannes, France, to the Caribbean Sea and ultimately to West Africa. Harms was able to reconstruct the course of this voyage by using a personal journal of the ship’s first lieutenant, obtained by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Harms said the process of researching the slave trade unveiled an enduring aspect of humanity.
“If such horrible things are done by relatively ordinary people, then that teaches the lesson that ordinary people are capable of doing monstrous things,” he said.
The book is the recipient of numerous other prizes, including the Frederick Douglass Book Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Harms said the book’s warm reception is unexpected, but welcome.
“It’s what everybody hopes for when they write a book, but you don’t really expect it to happen,” Harms said.
Rai specializes in South Asian history and is currently on sabbatical in India for the academic year. Her book examines the history of the Kashmir region, a place where Hindus traditionally ruled a predominantly Muslim population, History Department chair Paul Freedman said.
“She is interested in Kashmir more not as a colony, but as a collaborative effort in terms of its past and the position it occupied in the British empire,” Freedman said.
Harms said that he sees value in a prize that raises awareness within the University community of scholarship on international topics.
“One of the reasons for giving the prize is a way of letting people outside that group know that international stuff is being produced among the community of people working on international issues,” Harms said.
The prize selection committee was comprised of two professors — political science professor Keith Darden and sociology professor Julia Adams — under the direction of history professor Laura Engelstein, the chair of the YCIAS’ European Studies Council. Looking for originality and quality, the committee sifted through three entries for the Best First Book and four for the Best Book categories, Engelstein said. Nominations were either made by the author or by a third party, she said.
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