Danna Agmon has a passion for what she considers a largely neglected period in history — French colonialism in India. That passion shone through for many members of the Mu of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Based on her first book, “A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India,” award committee members bestowed on Agmon the 2020 Albert Lee Sturm Award for Faculty Excellence. They described her writing as compelling, inspiring, and engaging.

“What pushed it over the top this year,” said Peter Potter, committee chair and publishing director for the University Libraries at Virginia Tech, “was the general perception among the committee members that the book surpassed all others in combining clarity of presentation with persuasive argumentation. One committee member explained that the book was especially compelling to him because it made him care about a slice of history — 18th-century French colonial history — that otherwise he knew nothing about.”

Agmon, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of History who published the book in 2017 through Cornell University Press, wrote about the 1716 conviction of a Tamil commercial agent for the French East India Company in Pondicherry, India. The story follows his condemnation for tyranny and sedition, as well as his public torture, loss of wealth, exile, and eventual exoneration. 

“I wanted to write a book about big themes — like empire, religion, and capitalism — and how these all came together in the making of French India,” Agmon said. “But it was also important to me that my readers come to understand that these big, global transformations emerge through individual experiences and human-scaled emotions, like pain, vengeance, loyalty, and betrayal.”

Agmon also serves a core faculty in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought, a Virginia Tech graduate program known as ASPECT. 

Her most recent award was a one-year fellowship with the National Endowment for the Humanities. This 2019 honor was to support her research for a new book titled “A World at Court: Nested Legality and French Empire in the Indian Ocean.” This project examines patterns in the legal system in the French courts involving the Indian Ocean she discovered while working on her first book. She is researching a hybrid system of laws and enforcement that involved not only France but also village councils, commercial brokers, and local rulers.

Agmon began her project in July 2020, when she embarked on a yearlong research leave as a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow. Working in sources collected in archives in both France and India, she will write about the legal roles of French and Tamil traders, and about judicial connections between French Pondicherry and the neighboring British colony of Madras.

She is also the recipient of several grants and fellowships, such as a Huntington Library Long-term Fellowship, a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society, and a TransAsia Connections Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council.

Besides her first book, Agmon has published multiple journal articles and book chapters about French colonialism in India, from the 17th to the 20th century. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Tel Aviv University and a master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology and history from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 

The Albert Lee Sturm Award for Faculty Excellence recognizes excellence in research and in the creative arts by university faculty. As the 2020 research recipient, Agmon will receive a monetary prize and an invitation to be a guest speaker at one of the chapter’s upcoming meetings. 

The award is in remembrance of Albert Lee Sturm, a university research professor in political science and a founding member of Virginia Tech’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. The society advances studies in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences.

“This award is a testament to Danna’s ability to take an intricate legal case from 1700s French India,” said Brett Shadle, professor and chair of the Department of History, “and use it to deepen our knowledge about much wider fields in Indian Ocean and French colonial history, all while drawing in readers with her fine prose and storytelling.”

Written by Leslie King