Award Citation

Sunil Amrith is a historian who combines a broader view of global perspectives with a detailed emphasis on local contexts. He is a gifted academic whose continued success is expected in the future. He has already published four books in English. All of them have the common theme of an Asian history that transcends national borders; he focuses mainly on the Bay of Bengal and the surrounding South and Southeast Asian regions.

Amrith was born to an Indian immigrant family in Kenya in 1979. He spent his childhood in Singapore, and went on to the University of Cambridge to achieve a Ph.D. in history in 2005. His doctoral thesis culminated in a book titled Decolonizing International Health (2006), which discusses the history of international health care in South and Southeast Asia in the mid-20th century. He subsequently became a lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, and then Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. Since 2020, he has been working as a professor of history at Yale University.

His third publication, Crossing the Bay of Bengal (2013), investigates the migration of nearly 27 million people from India across the Bay of Bengal to the working fields of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), and Malaya (Malaysia) under British imperial rule during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book attempts to go beyond a simple history of migration, and attempts to delve into the minds of these migrants, while revealing the realities of their lives in the harsh working conditions faced by migrant laborers. One could call it a “spiritual history” of the Bay of Bengal.

In his recent work, Unruly Waters (2018) (Japanese translation published in 2021), Amrith brings focuses on the relationship between humans and their natural environment. He looks into how development initiatives have dramatically changed the relationship between people and water, including: irrigation systems built in response to drought and famine in British Raj; the construction of dams after India’s Independence; and the Green Revolution. He not only describes the process of these events from environmental, economic and political perspectives, but also provides a masterful narrative on the drama of ideology. Furthermore, the book expands its scope to the wider Asian region to include China to address recent crises over water, such as climate change (modulation of monsoons), groundwater depletion, border disputes and rising sea levels, while weaving an awareness of contemporary issues into the narrative of the historical drama.

Based on his own self-identity as a member of the Indian diaspora, Sunil Amrith has been working on global history grounded in the context of the local histories in the Bay of Bengal. This outstanding historian of Asia is truly worthy of the Academic Prize.

Message upon Announcement of Laureates