A new look at the lives of the Aztecs in their own words has been announced as the winner of this year’s Cundill History Prize.

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend was revealed as the recipient of the $75,000 award at a virtual ceremony on 3 December. Townsend, distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University, beat fellow nominees William Dalrymple for The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East Company, and Vincent Brown for Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War. The decision was made by chair of the jury Peter Frankopan and jurors Anne Applebaum, Lyse Doucet, Eliga Gould and Sujit Sivasundaram.

The three shortlisted finalists for the 2020 Cundill History Prize.
The three shortlisted finalists for the 2020 Cundill History Prize.

Fifth Sun guides readers through more than 300 years of history, from the years before 1299 to the changes that took place in the decades after the invasion of the Spanish in 1519–21. Focusing on the lives of individual Aztec people, it considers that conquest as part of a wider story that continues to have resonance in the region today.

HistoryExtra is a media partner of the prize, and we have featured Townsend – together with her fellow finalists – on our podcast. You can listen to those interviews on our podcast page, and we’ll also be chatting to Townsend about her win and the challenges of writing history in 2020 later in December.

Listen: Camilla Townsend charts the rise and fall of the ancient civilisation from the perspective of the Aztecs themselves, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

Fifth Sun is a magical book – it’s one of those books that, when you’re reading it, you sometimes put down and pause for a moment to absorb the beauty of the words and the imagery,” said 2020 juror Lyse Doucet. “I was also taken by the idea of Aztecs as traditional storytellers, [and the fact that] they wouldn’t recognise themselves in the stories written by others – in this case, the Spanish texts – rather than the history they wrote themselves in their own language. This is history at its best: taking us back to a history we thought that we knew and understood but now realise, through books such as this, that we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface. This is not just a retelling of history: it changes history.”

Previous winners of the $75,000 prize include Julia Lovell, Applebaum, Diarmaid MacCulloch and Maya Jasanoff. You can read more about the full shortlist here.


Matt EltonDeputy Editor, BBC History Magazine

Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.