Dr Grace Karskens' intimate account of the early days of Sydney has won the $100,000 Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction.

The Colony: A History of Early Sydney was praised by the judges for its literary quality and originality.

"Karskens' voice is a confident one, balanced, perceptive and startling in its simplicity and directness as she challenges received wisdom," they said.

Dr Karskens, a historian and archeologist in the School of History and Philosophy, was surprised by her success after making the shortlist six times in previous years.

"Fiction usually receives all the literary accolades, but nonfiction writers are the tellers of true stories and our writing is liberated by that truth," said Dr Karskens. "I'm proud of the fact that nonfiction writing is being recognised in this way."

Dr Karskens' groundbreaking book, The Rocks: Life in Early Sydney, won the 1998 NSW Premier's Award for Local and Regional History and established the author as a leading historian of colonial Australia.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Professor James Donald, said the award was a tribute to the thriving health of history at UNSW.

"The Colony animates the events and personalities of colonial Sydney in a way that has intensified and enriched the way we experience our city. Dr Karskens has a unique vision, and a great literary talent," he said.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Arts Minister, Simon Crean, presented awards in four categories, each worth $100,000, in Melbourne yesterday.

Media contact: Fran Strachan| fran.strachan@unsw.edu.au| 9385 8732|0429 416 070