On the Spot: Sujit Sivasundaram

‘The past has not gone.’

‘Could I have Samarkand?’: Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Wiki Commons/Ekrem Canli.

Why are you a global historian? 

Because I was born and educated in Sri Lanka, which was a magnet for a range of global forces and invaders.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?

The past has not gone. 

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?

Lisa Jardine’s Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance.

What book in your field should everyone read?

Pier Larson’s Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

I am too interested in the relation of the past to the present to transport myself back in time. And what if I get lost without knowing how to come back to face present realities?

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

Christopher A. Bayly and James A. Secord.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?

The writers of the palm-leaf texts, who produced poetry retelling war against the British in Sri Lanka in the 19th century.

How many languages do you have?

I had all my pre-16 education in Sinhala and not Tamil (though I have a Tamil name). I am improving my Tamil now. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

The history of animals.

Which genre of history do you like least?

I don’t like history which is poorly written or top-down.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

I used to write about human representations of animals, but I now write more about how humans are part of a web of life in history (and indeed viruses).  

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

Plenty!

What’s your favourite archive? 

The National Archives of Mauritius (they are not on a beach but an industrial estate).

What’s the best museum? 

The Peranakan Museum in Singapore, the National Museum in Yangon, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Slave Lodge Museum in Cape Town.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons? 

Neither. 

Rome or Athens? 

Could I not have Samarkand? 

Braudel or Gibbon? 

Braudel, or Epeli Hau‘ofa.

Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo?

Frida Kahlo, or perhaps Yinka Shonibare.

What is the most common misconception about your field?

That the story of the age of revolutions is an Atlantic one.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

For not listening to the young on a whole series of issues.

Sujit Sivasundaram is Professor of World History at the University of Cambridge and author of Waves Across the South: a New History of Revolution and Empire  (William Collins, 2020).