British Historian Daniel Beer wins McGill University’s Cundill History Prize for book on Siberian exiles
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
British Historian Daniel Beer accepting the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature for his book The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Nov. 16, 2017 (PubPerspectives, Twitter)
British historian Daniel Beer is the winner of the richest history book prize in the world. Canada’s McGill University announced Beer and his book The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars (Allen Lane) the winner of the $75,000 USD annual international Cundill Prize in Historical Literature on Nov. 16, 2017, at the prize’s gala at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The annual prize honors history non-fiction books published in the last year. Beer is a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, and his prize-winning book about Siberian prison exiles during the Russian tsarist regime has been lauded throughout the year before winning the ultimate history prize.
Chair of the prize jury Margaret MacMillan feted Beer’s book in announcing him the winner. MacMillan expressed at the gala, “Daniel Beer has done extraordinary research, using underappreciated and unexamined sources, to show what exile meant to generations of Russians and other nationalities within the Russian Empire. He gives a moving and heart-rending account of what happened to these people, most of whom never returned from Siberia. The House of the Dead is a haunting and important contribution to Russian history and hugely deserving winner of the 2017 Cundill History Prize.”
McGill Dean of Arts Antonia Maioni also spoke at the Cundill History Prize Gala before the announcement. The Dean of Arts expressed, “We are so very proud to celebrate this important prize at McGill University and in Canada.” Maioni also commented, “At McGill, we value research-intensive history and, at the same time, the ability to communicate to the rest of the world the importance of history writing and an understanding of Canada’s role in the global setting. The Cundill History Prize plays a hugely important role — championing the highest quality historical scholarship from around the world, and rewarding books that can reach out to appeal to a wide audience, ignite conversation, and evoke a better understanding of ourselves and others.”
The Cundill prize is open to any authored history book across the globe. For the tenth anniversary, the university “rebranded” the prize to “illuminate the truth at a time in world affairs when informed, factual debate is increasingly losing out to populism and retrenchment is on the rise.” This year’s long list was shortened from a record 330 submissions, double the amount McGill received for their 2016 prize.
A jury of five historians determined who wins the book prize. Canadian historian and Oxford University professor Margaret MacMillan chaired this year’s jury. The jury was predominantly British, with Oxford University professors Roy Foster and Rana Mitter, but included one American British-American historian and columnist Amanda Foreman and one Canadian, journalist Jeffrey Simpson. The Cundill Prize also had a committee of McGill faculty members.
Beer beat out his two competitors, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) professor, Christopher Goscha and “Austrian-born, US-based historian” Walter Scheidel. All three historians’ books were shortlisted for the prize down from the list of ten finalists announced on Sept. 26. On Oct. 26, jury chair MacMillan announced the shortlist finalists at a “press conference at Canada House in London.”
Despite Beer, claiming the grand prize both Goscha and Scheidel were both winners of the Recognition of Excellence Award and $10,000 USD. As the McGill Reporter notes, “Goscha was awarded for Vietnam: A New History (Basic Books),” and Scheidel was awarded “for his controversial economic thesis The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press).”
When the finalists were announced MacMillan praised the three books equally. MacMillan said, “The three finalists for the 2017 Cundill History Prize are extraordinary works of history: beautifully crafted, well-researched, and ambitious. They tackle big issues and help us to know ourselves and our world better. We live in complicated times and the work of historians such as these provides us with the necessary background, understanding, and insights to enable us to formulate the sorts of questions we ought to be asking.”
The Cundill Prize in Historical Literature was “founded by McGill alumnus F. Peter Cundill,” with the first prize was announced in 2008. Qualifying and winning books have to include “historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal.” Beer’s award-winning book “The House of the Dead has also been shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize, the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize and the Longman History Today Prize.” The House of the Dead was also “The Times, BBC History and TLS Books of the year for 2016.”
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.