Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Divide and Rule

By R.E.N. Smith - posted Thursday, 12 August 2004

Mr Hallinan's 'Divide and conquer; common imperial rules for the 21st century', while intensely interesting, turned this old dog dozing by the fireside into a snarling Weimaraner - all hackles raised. With due respect to Mr Hallinan's undoubted academic prominence, I do not think I have read quite so much ill-thought out and prejudiced twaddle since I was in primary school.

I must also declare a personal interest in the matter, being English by birth, a wartime officer in the old Indian Army, and a long serving professional colonial service officer in Africa and the Pacific, in what was once an empire, so I doubt if I shall be acquitted of prejudice either!

To judge from his name Conn Hallinan is Irish by birth or by descent, a heritage to be proud of and one that I regret I cannot claim. However, he is apparently a foreign policy analyst by profession, a discipline that would seem to demand a certain degree of dispassionate balance, a quality that his article does not display. To be passionate in one’s beliefs is understandable, but it did make me wonder what view of modern politics his students imbibe.


To return to the subject, the prime requirement of an analyst or an historian must be a certain familiarity with the facts of the subject, so I was surprised to learn that Charles I of England began the settlement of Ulster in 1609, even though he did not inherit the throne until 1625. In 1609 he was not much more than nine years old. It is also a little difficult to accuse the real culprit, James the Sixth of Scotland and First of England with being an English imperialist oppressor – he was nothing if not Scottish in outlook, prejudices and speech – and while it was lowland Scots he inflicted on the unfortunate Irish, he also dumped a bunch of indigent and fortune seeking Scots favourites, nobles and commoners, on the ungrateful English.

Mr Hallinan assures us that this successful formula, transmuted into the familiar "Divide and Rule" formula was then transported to India, Africa and the Middle East as standard English colonial policy. This assumption has been adopted as an article of faith by many aspiring academics, but it betrays an almost total ignorance of the relevant history, for it will not stand up to even a superficial analysis.

In India, the English, together with and in rivalry with the French and Portuguese (not the Dutch – their sphere of Divide and Rule was Ceylon and the East Indies), were initially traders in a fairly small way of business. The almost anarchistic state of India at that time, for it was badly ruled (where it was ruled at all) by a foreign Muslim dynasty, obliged the trading posts to be kept free from mass robbery, which made the three trading bodies enlist a rabble of musket-armed watchmen, and from these grew small but fairly efficient military forces. India became involved in the world-wide 18th century Anglo-French wars, so that both nations for entirely practical reasons sought alliances with various Indian princes, many of whom had their own armies, often trained by able French officers such as de Boigne and Perron (and later even by American mercenaries like the celebrated "Warlike George").

At the same time Mogul viceroys and Hindu princes struck out for their own kingdoms and sought French or British help. In this melting pot of ambitions and despair the wars went sometimes in favour of the French (who captured and held Madras for some years) and sometimes of the English, until the fortunes of war decided it in favour of the latter.

British involvement was variable. For example, a century later the English left the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab strictly alone, and it was the Sikh army of the Khalsa that twice provoked the British by invading the Punjab after the death of the great Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

There is no sign of settled policy in any Anglo-Indian history – after all Governors-General were UK political appointees and UK policy was extremely erratic. One should remember that the British government actually initially repudiated the annexation of Hong Kong and refused to countenance various Pacific kingdoms that tried to become part of the British Empire – even today the state flag of Hawaii embodies the Union Flag.


The ultimate rebuttal of the theory that "division and chaos, tribal, religious and ethnic hatred" were the "secret to empire" occurred at Indian independence. At the time I was A.D.C. to the Indian governor of a province and thus close to a minor political fountainhead and I recall that it was the British who did their utmost to preserve the unity of India, and that it was largely the stubborn intransigence of the Indian Congress party that drove Jinnah into the creation of Pakistan.

Now let’s try "tribal hatred". Today the Indian government is forcibly endeavouring to suppress Naga separatism, but in the days of empire the wicked British actively nurtured this great tribal people. In Zimbabwe, another part of the former empire, it is Mugabe who demonstrates tribal hatred at its worst – for there the Shona rule and the Ndebele (and the white farmers) are the underdogs.

As for religious and ethnic hatred: in the Sudan the greatest mistake the British made there was not to divide and rule, for they would have done well to separate the Christian and Nilo-Hamitic Dinka and Nuer tribes of the South from the Muslim more-or-less Arab North. A nationally and ethnically divided country is what the Nilo-Hamitic rebels are fighting for – here Divide and Rule would have been a boon.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Article edited by Ian Miller.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

R.E.N. Smith was born in 1922 in the UK. He was educated at Bristol and Oxford Universities. His career in the military includes service in the Indian Army (3rd Gurkha Rifles) from 1942 to 1947. He was appointed to the UK Colonial Service (later HMOCS) in Nyasaland in 1948 and later transferred to the New Hebrides and Gilbert & Ellice Islands. He retired in 1975 and now lives in New Zealand.

Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy