Yale historian Sunil Amrith has been awarded the 2022 Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for History in recognition of his examination of the historical origins of inequality within and between countries and the impact of climate change on global socioeconomic conditions.
The Heineken Prizes, given every two years to five distinguished researchers working on a global scale and to one Dutch artist, are the Netherlands’ most prestigious international arts and sciences prizes. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences nominates candidates and is responsible for the selection of the winners. During the first week in June a laureate is announced each weekday.
Amrith, who is the Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, studies the history of South and Southeast Asia. He is interested in the transnational connections between these two regions, with a focus mainly on the 19th and 20th centuries. Among other topics, he has studied the large-scale migration around the Bay of Bengal and the circulation of cultural, religious, and political ideas that followed. He is also interested in the ecological processes that have connected South and Southeast Asia.
His most recent book, “Unruly Waters,” a history of the struggle to understand and control the monsoon in modern South Asia, makes a connection between colonial exploitation and climate change.
“‘Unruly Waters’ is an extraordinary broadening of the history of the Indian subcontinent, from a whole new perspective,” said Judith Pollmann, a professor of early modern Dutch history at Leiden University in the Netherlands and chair of the jury that selected Amrith for the prize.
In the book, Amrith combines political, social, and cultural insights, bringing in popular sources such as film and drama, and tying in ecology, migration, politics, health, and climate to offer a view of how individual lives are affected by climate.
“Our current environmental crisis is best understood in relation to a history of increasing inequality, both between and within countries,” said Amrith. “Moreover, we can better equip ourselves to understand the challenges we all face if we listen to and learn from the widest possible range of voices, including those that have been marginalized or silenced.”
Born in Kenya, Amrith grew up in Singapore and moved to the United Kingdom to study history at Cambridge University, where he also received his Ph.D. in 2005. After working briefly as a researcher at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was appointed a lecturer at Birbeck College, part of the University of London. He was appointed the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian History at Harvard University in 2015 and in 2020 came to Yale, where he is currently on leave as chair of the South Asian Studies Council, a post he will resume in the fall.
Named a MacArthur Fellow in 2017, Amrith also won the Infosys Prize in Humanities in 2016. His other honors include the American Historical Association’s John F. Richards Prize in South Asian History for his book “Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants,” which was selected as an Editor’s Choice title by The New York Times Book Review. He is also the author of “Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia.” He is currently writing an environmental history of the modern world.
The Heineken award was established in 1990 by Alfred H. Heineken. Previous winners include American historian Lorraine Daston, director emerita of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and environmental historian John McNeil of Georgetown University.