The European colonization of Americas was a bloody conquest leading to significant destruction of the native population (and their cultures). Aside from the fact that a lot of natives inadvertently died of disease, some historians (David E. Stannard etc) have argued that European prejudice towards natives resulted in a deliberate/state-sponsored genocide.

Contrast this with India. Colonized around the same time frame, natives of a different race and religion. Yet the European conquest was considerably more "benign" (unless I am mistaken, there was no large scale extermination or state policy to expunge natives).

Why did Europeans from the same place and time behave differently upon landing in India versus entering America?

  • 5
    Aside from the fact that those "some historians" are just plain wrong? India had a much larger population than the Americas (which was never decimated by virgin-field epidemics - disease transmission went the other way), which was much more technically and militarily advanced. The British domination of India was much more a matter of politics, making alliances with this or that native state to conquer some other state, then building on that success.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 6:23
  • 2
    In India the Europeans came to trade. What happened in their desire to trade and protect their trade was that alliances, warfare, domination, subjugation resulted, as pointed out by @jamesqf. It was not really about grabbing land but making more money. Having said that, a simple "contrast" is possibly too large a topic because the dynamics of colonization (in the subcontinent) is a very big subject, and still being re-interpreted.
    – Rajib
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 15:14
  • 3
    @Rajib: It's also important to remember that India was not a "New World" to the Europeans. It had been known to them at least since Alexander's time, trade routes as far as Sri Lanka are shown on Roman maps, etc.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 18:53
  • 4
    British "colonisation" in the 18th and 19th centuries can be broadly divided into two types. There were those places which were considered suitable for British settlers to live and work the land. And there were those that were not, for reasons of climate, demography etc not considered suitable. In the first category were North America, Australasia, South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya etc. India fell in the second category, and though it was governed by British people there was no large-scale European settlement.
    – WS2
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 21:36
  • 2
    'State sponsored genocide' is just absurd. The Amerindian natives were pushed aside by settlers almost on a case by case basis, usually with the governments of Britain and even the colonies trying to defend them. When conflicts broke out, then the governments put the tribes down, but they did this in India too. The main difference is that the differences in societies were too great and one had to radically change - much like happened to steppe nomads in Asia about the same time.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 22:26

3 Answers 3


Purpose of Visiting

An important factor is that the Europeans went to America to find a new undiscovered land and settle there. So they fought with the natives to conquer the land. It was not a genocide but natives were killed by the colonists who occupied their lands.

But in contrast India was well known to Europeans since the time of Alexander. The Europeans came to India for trade. Later making use of the division among the Indian rulers they made pacts with them and gained political control over many kingdoms.


In case of American invasion, the native Americans were unknown to the rest of the world and were few in population. In comparison the population of India was large. The Mughal Kingdom of India contributed to around 19.9% of the world's population according to Wikipedia[1]. But the population of Native Americans were lower in comparission as stated in this article,

Most scholars writing at the end of the 19th century estimated that the pre-Columbian population was as low as 10 million

In comparison the Mughal empires population was around 115 million.

Military Strength

Also the military strength of India was greater than the native Americans but less technologically advanced than Europeans. India also had many strong kingdoms ruled by Shivaji, Mugals, Tipu Sultan, etc... The armies of Mughal kingdom infact even had artillery[3]. Both the Mughal and Shivaji empires had a weaker navy and had built forts alongside the coast. In comparison the Native Americans did not had any navy or strong castles and forts. The were completely unaware of artillery.

there was no large scale extermination or state policy to expunge natives

Such an act would have brought these kingdoms together(they were fighting among themselves) against the European invaders. Even with advanced technology they cannot win such a massive population.

  • 1
    I believe an explicit comparison between the populations of India (the subcontinent) and North America (north of Rio Grande say) in 1600 would be particularly revealing as an enhancement to your answer. My research suggests 115 million for Mughal Empire in 1600 and 9 million for all of North, Central and South America in 1650. Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 14:26
  • 3
    The armies of Mughal kingdom infact even had artillery, re this point, Mughal Empire had artillery since day 1 in 1526 when they conquered India. Along with the Ottomans and Safavids, Mughals are counted among the three Gunpowder Empires. It wasn't astonishing that they had artillery, they were one of the first Empires to use Artillery for conquest
    – NSNoob
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 5:41
  • @PieterGeerkens Thanks for the pointing that out. I have added more details on population numbers.
    – user6467
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 5:45
  • 1
    @NSNoob True. But quite a lot of people even in India used to think there was no artillery in India prior to the arrival of Europeans. That is the reason I stated it as such.
    – user6467
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 5:52

The British followed similar policies with the "Indians" of North America as it did with those of India. It's just that the results weren't as well documented because they took place on a "piecemeal" basis.

  1. The "Indians" of North America were more susceptible to European diseases than the Indians of India. A far larger percentage of the first group died for this reason than the second.

  2. The "13 colonies" of North America represented only about 10% of what later became the "United States." 90% of the country was free from British depredations, versus a much smaller percentage of India in the 18th century.

  3. After the British left, the "Americans" pushed the Indians west through forced removals such as the "Trail of Tears". The southern "Indians" ended up in modern Oklahoma; the northern Indians in the badlands of South Dakota.

  4. The "Anglos" did "less damage" in North America because it was sparsely populated. But in percentage terms, perhaps only 10% of the original number of "American" indians made it to the 20th century, versus a larger number and percentage of Indians in India.


America, Australia, South Africa and the highlands of East Africa were 'settlement' colonies- i.e. European people planned to remain there as permanent settlers.India, because of its harsh climate, innumerable diseases, and alien culture was never a 'settlement' colony in that sense. In general, the small number of Europeans who settled there became Indian within a generation.

Thus, in India, Britain- having moved from a commercial role to one of established suzerainty- sent out officials on fixed term contracts to exercise administrative, judicial and military authority with a view to protecting and enlarging the interests of British commercial ventures which were themselves increasingly run by Managing Agents on fixed term private contracts. The goal was always to work for a fixed number of years and then retire home with an ample competence. There are some minor exceptions to this rule but in general there was a sharp division between these 'country bottled' Britisher who hadn't returned to England for his education and whose primary domicile was in India and the 'pukka Sahib' who had been educated in England and whose family owned property there. Most country-bottled Englishmen were expected to descend into the even lower 'Eurasian' class who were kept out of executive positions but entrusted with laborious jobs like being steam-engine drivers.

Some Europeans did behave badly in India- they became pirates or slavers. The Dutch in Sri Lanka were particularly cruel- the slaves they kidnapped were worked to death within a few months of capture and their womenfolk tortured slave-girls impregnated by their drunken husbands. This at any rate was the English justification for annexing Ceylon. Those Europeans who behaved in this way tended to get killed or die of disease because the capacity of the Indian natives to exercise a countervailing power was far greater than that of the American Indians- except in some more difficult terrains. The English had one great advantage- financial solvency and control over sea-routes- which made them dominant. However it was not military superiority so much as the ability to pay troops and reward allies, as well as superior esprit de corps, which gave them the edge.

In general, the vast majority of Indians remained subject to their own traditional laws and local elites and had little interaction with White people. Thus there was no occasion for racial friction except where a higher political purpose could be served. In the Americas, the Europeans took little trouble to preserve local languages and cultures whereas in India, the Colonial power invested heavily in a scientific study of the languages, ancient and modern, and law codes and philosophies and belief systems of the indigenous people. Moreover, Missionaries were curbed and encouraged to take a conciliatory approach. The British acknowledged that India could not be profitably ruled without the acquiescence- sullen or meretricious as it might be- of its own local elites and Religious authorities.

  • 5
    Please use paragraphs.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 9:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.