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  • India or North America?Reflections on Nicholas Mansergh's Partition Paradigm
  • Antoine Mioche (bio)

If comparative history is to be done properly, it should be understood that no comparisons are exact.1

In his Commonwealth Lecture delivered in 1976 before the University of Cambridge, the late Professor Nicholas Mansergh brought his formidable erudition, his independent intellect, and his customary moderation to bear on the historically and politically charged question of Irish partition. This he did by means of a comparison with the subsequent partition of the Indian subcontinent. It is the nature of this comparison, and the extent of its validity, that this essay proposes to explore.

The Prelude to Partition: Concepts and Aims in Ireland and India, the essay issuing from Mansergh's lecture, is magisterial in the simplicity and quiet daring of its thesis—the notion that partition, in the last analysis, is the product, not of a malignant British desire to divide and rule the nations succeeding to her imperial mantle, but rather of a political process driven by an evolving balance of forces and interests between rival nationalisms and a retreating metropolitan power seeking to achieve a reasonably smooth transfer of sovereignty.2 [End Page 290]

My claim is that this bold and innovative thesis, which has not been improved upon, though it has sometimes (yet significantly rarely) been elaborated upon, by more recent research,3 is not without its blind spot. More specifically, Mansergh's inclination to treat partition as the final flourish of British authority before withdrawal has reduced partition to an essentially postcolonial condition. In Mansergh's analysis, partition emerges as a device created by the former metropole, but one which, being designed to allow its disengagement, devolves immediately, both by virtue of historical circumstance and by the nature of its historiographical construction, from the field of imperial studies into that of theories of nationalism or that of postimperial national history. It is my conviction, derived from other comparisons, both with an earlier phase of decolonization and with the practices of imperial administration, that partition, on the contrary, need not be endowed with the exceptional character which Mansergh's nationalist perspective confers on it. It appears, [End Page 291] rather, as a fairly common tool in an imperial setting for the management of intercommunity relations overseas, as well as for the organization and maintenance of metropolitan authority. It might elicit an impression of divide and rule, to be sure, but it proceeded also from a genuine sense of how best to accommodate diversity in the interest of metropolitan, colonial, and imperial unity.

In what follows, I look first at Professor Mansergh's pioneering study, then at the territorial division of British North America in 1774, and finally at the partition of Quebec in 1791. I do not believe that such comparisons invalidate Mansergh's partition thesis or its resort to a comparison with India. My debt to his comparative perspective will be clear enough, and I trust that my views will be seen overall to be broadly compatible with his. But I do think these other references demonstrate the need to break free from the decolonization paradigm in order to think of partition more in terms of governance and of what one scholar has called "a wider pattern of interconnection [of Ireland] with other parts of the Empire."4

Nicholas Mansergh—Partition as Concept

In Prelude to Partition, Mansergh sets out to rescue partition from the realm of mutual representation and recrimination as a traumatic episode of Anglo-Irish or Anglo-Indian history, and to approach it by means of what he terms "contextual concepts." To him, as others of his writings attest, the partitions of India and Ireland cannot simply be caricatured as arbitrary and malicious attempts against the territorial integrity and national unity of countries once under British rule.5 They belong to the same species of a larger "partition" genus and they are the products of politics and circumstance.

Partitions, Mansergh explains, may be of two different sorts—those that are imposed from outside (e.g., that of Poland between [End Page 292] 1772 and 1795, or that of Africa in the late nineteenth century), and those that have their...


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