UMBC’s Marjoleine Kars receives the Cundill History Prize and Frederick Douglass Book Prize for “Blood on the River”

Published: Dec 7, 2021

Marjoleine Kars, professor of history, has received the Cundill History Prize and the Frederick Douglass Book Prize for her acclaimed book Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast (The New Press). Based on a decade of archival research, the book tells the story of a nearly successful rebellion of enslaved African and indigenous people just over 250 years ago in the Dutch colony of Berbice, 1763-1764. 

Kars appreciates that the awards bring greater attention to the historical events and voices conveyed in her book. “At this moment when studying and teaching the history of African-descended people, and the history of race and racism, is under attack,” she says, “we need stories about Black courage, resilience, and resistance more than ever.”

Cundill History Prize

Cundill History Prize jurors voted unanimously for Blood on the River as the recipient of this year’s top award. 

The annual prize, awarded by McGill University in Montreal, is the largest prize for a work of historical non-fiction in English ($75,000). It recognizes scholars globally for new books on any historical period or subject that have broad appeal, engaging readers outside of academia. Prize guidelines note that winners represent excellence in “the historian’s craft” – utilizing a variety of primary sources to produce “an impeccably-documented and well-argued study.”

“This story has, for so long, gone relatively unexamined,” says Jennifer L. Morgan, juror and professor of social and cultural analysis and history at NYU. “Kars’s skills as a researcher and a writer reposition the lives of these freedom fighters at the heart of our understanding of the Atlantic World.”

Frederick Douglass Book Prize 

Just days before the Cundill History Prize announcement, Kars received the prestigious Frederick Douglass Book Prize, awarded by Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and the Gilder Lerhman Institute of American History. It honors the most outstanding new non-fiction book in English on the subject of slavery, resistance, and/or abolition.

This “beautifully written book” relies on a “gold mine of an archive to unpack hidden meanings” within events that few historians have written of before, says jury chair Joseph P. Reidy, professor emeritus of history and former provost at Howard University. Among Kars’s archival resources are first-hand accounts of the rebellion by enslaved people, accessed through the National Archives of the Netherlands in the Hague.

Kars shares this prestigious $25,000 award with Vincent Brown, the Charles Warren Professor of American History and professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University. Brown’s book Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War takes an in-depth look at a rebellion of enslaved people in Jamaica,1760-61. The winning books were selected out of 85 nominees.

“I feel enormously honored to be a winner of this year’s Frederick Douglass Book Prize alongside Professor Vincent Brown,” shares Kars. “The Frederick Douglass Prize is the biggest prize in the field of slavery studies. It is very humbling to win it.”

Rigorous historical research

UMBC’s Amy Froide, professor and chair of history, shares that Kars is a notable example of the rigorous historical research that thrives at UMBC. She notes that Kars’s work has a particularly high impact because she produces meticulously researched and carefully argued scholarship that is beautifully written and accessible to a wide range of audiences. And within the field of history, her work will strongly influence scholars far afield from Berbice. 

A woman with gray hair wearing a black and red rimmed glasses holds a book with a gray and red cover.
Kars. Photo courtesy of Kars.

“Historians are especially appreciative of the creativity and unique perspective Dr. Kars has brought to the study of slave rebellions,” says Froide, “in particular her focus on divisions within and among the rebels, and seeing Africans and Indigenous peoples as leaders and participants in complex rather than monolithic resistance movements.” 

Support for further research

Kars appreciates the support she has received from her department, the CAHSS Dean’s office, and UMBC in general. This includes feedback on her work, seed monies, research funding, help with grant writing, fellowship support, and leave from teaching in order to write. She notes that Rachel Brubaker, assistant director of grants and program development at UMBC’s Dresher Center for the Humanities, has provided invaluable assistance through her vast knowledge of prestigious national and international fellowships. 

Since receiving the Cundill History Prize and Frederick Douglass Book Prize, Kars has received two new fellowships supporting her next project, from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). Her forthcoming research will focus on the complex lives of Accara and Gousarie, two African men who were revolutionary leaders and also involved in Dutch slavery and colonialism. She will begin working on the book Multiple Crossings: The Lives of Two African Men in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Atlantic in residence at the NIAS in Amsterdam in 2022

“UMBC has created a marvelous infrastructure for research in the arts, humanities and social sciences,” she says. “I am glad these prizes can showcase that.” 

Banner image: Marjoleine Kars. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

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