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John C. Weaver

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The François-Xavier Garneau Medal

2010

John C. WeaverThe Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World.
His work was chosen by the prize jury the most remarquable canadian contribution to historical research published between 2003 and 2008.
A triumph of comparative and inter-disciplinary history, The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World addresses the complex regional and national histories of settlement in Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Effortlessly moving through legal, cultural, ecological, intellectual, and economic history, John Weaver situates the emergence of private conceptions of land tenure at the intersection of legal history and cultural geography. In doing so, he sheds light on the British colonial enterprise and the transition to modern capitalism. Under what is broadly termed the culture of improvement, we see the rise of private land tenure and the concomitant history of the alienation of indigenous land claims to what became agricultural land in five food-exporting areas of the New World. But it is more than just the story of the state wielding immense legal, political, and military might; it also explores the squatters and adventurers who took land in defiance of the state, and in their own way shaped these Neo-Europes. What emerges is a compelling synthesis of the common features of English-language settlement patterns and their global legal and cultural implications. Its sweep is broad, taking in three continents and five countries, and Weaver shows a remarkable mastery of an enormous archival base – everything from the account books of private land companies to the long forgotten memoirs of settlers. Yet despite the book’s ambitious scope, it never loses sight of the fine detail that gives the story its nuance. Writing with skill and verve, Weaver brings the characters and cultures of the various land rushes to life – from Alexander Berry, a naval surgeon-turned-land baron who cobbled together a feudal-style estate in Australia, to teacher and surveyor John Symmes, whose dreams of a land empire in southern Ohio collapsed under the weight of falling prices and vicious rumours spread by adversaries. As readable as it is profound, The Great Land Rush is a path-breaking work of global history, offering exceptional insights into the formation of modern nations and attitudes.

Honourable mention
Natalie Zemon Davis. Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds.
A window onto the sixteenth-century Mediterranean world, Trickster Travels is, at once, simple and complex. On the one hand, it is a meticulously researched intellectual biography of the enigmatic al-Hasan al-Wazzan (Jean Léon l’Africain), the North African Muslim diplomat who became one of the leading writers and interpreters of Africa for European audiences. At the same time, it is a broad and far-reaching exploration of the encounter between Africa and Europe, Islam and Christianity, along one of the great cross-cultural highways of the Renaissance world. Natalie Zemon Davis marshals a wide array of materials from a variety of cultures to narrate the extraordinary passages of this man’s life, and the exceptional settings through which he travelled. But using al-Hasan al-Wazzan as the central figure in this tale was no easy task, for he did not leave behind a rich archive of written material. Instead, Davis fills in the silences in her documentation with well-informed and fascinating speculations as to what her protagonist may have felt, experienced, or read. The deftness with which she interrogates small bits of marginalia or slight alterations between editions of his best-selling work Description of Africa demonstrates her skill as an historian, while her ruminations on the cities, lands, and cultures that al-Wassan experienced are enlivened by flashes of wit and great humanity. Through it all, she deftly weaves the image of the trickster bird – a clever amphibious bird able to blend in with either the birds or the fishes, depending on the circumstances. In the hands of a distinguished historian such as Zemon Davis, it becomes the metaphor for al-Hasan al-Wazzan’s double life. A model of inter-disciplinary history with observations on cultural interchange that still resonate in the modern world, Trickster Travels embodies the best of historical practice and writing.