Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, is one of only nine colleges chartered before the American Revolution. It awarded the first PhD degree on American soil in 1861. Its library is the third largest university library in the US, holding 15 million volumes. Its endowment is valued at $27.2 billion, the second largest amongst U.S. educational institutions. 60 Nobel laureates, 5 Fields medallists for excellence in mathematics and 3 Turing awardees for distinction in computer sciences have been associated with it. Its alumni include 5 US presidents, 19 US Supreme Court Justices and 20 billionaires. These achievements are admirably immense by any standard.
But it was not always such a well-off institution.
The University’s forerunner incipient college, founded in 1701, was housed in private homes and was in danger of closing down due to a lack of funds to erect a building. The college approached a wealthy Boston-born Welsh ‘nabob’ by the name of Elihu Yale with a request for a large donation. To entice this rich person, the college wrote that, “What is forming at New Haven might wear the name of Yale College, it would be better than the name of sons and daughters. And your munificence might easily obtain for you such a commemoration and perpetuation of your valuable name as would indeed be much better than an Egyptian pyramid.”
Elihu Yale found the offer tempting, and donated hundreds of books, a portrait of King George I and 9 bales of goods consisting of Indian cotton. The bales were auctioned for a princely sum of £800 according to one source, £560 by another. The money was used to build the university’s first building and as agreed between the then college administration and the donor, it was named after Yale. Subsequently, the whole university came to be known as Yale. Elihu is reported to have made some further contributions as well, though not as much as the college administration had hoped to gain from this fabulously rich employee of the British East India Company, who had been the company’s first President of Fort St. George; the edifice around which the city of Chennai grew.
In its vast art collection, Yale University holds three portraits of Elihu Yale. Two are in storage while the third hangs in the Corporation Room of Woodbridge Hall—the nerve centre of the university. In this portrait, which was placed on the wall in 2007 without much fanfare, a prosperous-looking Elihu is shown standing alone. However, in the centuries before that year, the portrait that adorned this spot showed him attended upon by a young boy who is clearly in servitude. Both are wearing expensive flourishing clothes, signifying the wealthy status of the master. The portrait is clearly meant to depict the high social and economic standing of Elihu Yale. However, the portrait also reveals a dark secret.
As an official for the Company, Elihu presided over an important node of the Indian Ocean slave trade
A closer look at the boy reveals that he is wearing a metal collar with a padlock. The boy is not a servant but a slave, and treated like a domesticated wild animal. His appearance need not necessarily be one of African origin – he could just as easily be a native of Tamil Nadu, where the affluent master was an official for 16 years and the President of East India Company factories for another 5 years. The third portrait in the storage shows Elihu Yale with his rich friends and, again, attended by a dark brown slave, collared and padlocked.
The administration of Yale University, perhaps sensitive to current views on slavery, quietly replaced the ‘slave-waiting-on-master’ portrait with the one that hangs there now. They were clearly uncomfortable with the reality that their earliest benefactor and the person who gave the university his name was not only a slave trader but also someone who relished exhibiting his human assets – many of whom may have been of Tamil origin.
According to historian Hiram Bingham III, a Ph.D from and later a professor at Yale University, Elihu’s grandparents migrated from Wrexham, Wales, to Boston in the New World and founded the New Haven colony in 1638. Elihu was born in Boston in 1649 and moved to Wales with his parents when he was only three years old. He was educated at a private school in London. The family escaped the ravages of the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.
In 1671, when he was 22, Elihu was selected for the respectable and well paying position of a ‘writer’ for the British East India Company and landed in Fort St George, Madras.
He would make his fortune here, rising from a mere clerk to junior merchant to senior merchant and then on to the council of members, from amongst whom the Governor was selected. In almost no time, Governor Elihu Yale had pulled himself up from his rough-and-tumble arrival on that sandy beach and become a proper 17th century “nabob” – as Europeans who had amassed great wealth in India were called. He displayed all the arrogance of the colonial race towards the native population. Apart from indulging in private trade against the rules of the Company, Elihu also profited from capturing men, women and children from the areas surrounding Madras and selling them overseas as slaves.
Joseph Yannielli, a Ph.D in history from Yale University, has documented this slaving activity in its gory details. He states that as an official for the Company, Elihu presided over an important node of the Indian Ocean slave trade. Much larger in scope than its Atlantic counterpart, the Indian Ocean trade linked southeast Asia with the Middle East, the Indonesian archipelago, and the African littoral.
In the 1680s, a devastating famine struck the Madras coast leading to an upsurge in the local slave trade. As more and more bodies became available on the open market, Elihu Yale and other company officials took advantage of the labour surplus, buying hundreds of slaves and shipping them to the Company-governed English colony on Saint Helena. Yale participated in a meeting that ordered a minimum of ten slaves sent on every outbound European ship. Fort St. George exported at least 665 individuals in 1681.
The availability of slaves after the previous year’s famine had dried up, and the Mughal government had, in Yale’s words, “brought great complaints & troubles…for the loss of their Children & Servants Sperited and Stoln
Yale was appointed Governor of Madras in 1687. He was the first President of Fort St. George as the post was elevated from that of agent. During this time he enforced the ten-slaves-per-vessel rule. On two separate occasions, he sentenced “black Criminals” accused of burglary to suffer whipping, branding and enslavement. When the demand began to increase rapidly, the English merchants even began to kidnap young children and deport them to distant parts of the world, very much against their will. Elihu Yale certainly profited both directly and indirectly from this trade in human cargo.
In 1688, Aurangzeb occupied Golconda, imprisoned its Qutub Shahi ruler and extended his control over the Coromandel coast. The Mughals were already aware that the European trading companies, including the Dutch and British East India Companies, were involved in procuring slaves from Bengal’s coastal regions. Now they learnt that the British were capturing unsuspecting poor people around Madras and selling them overseas. They insisted on abolition of slavery. Consequently Elihu Yale issued a decree in May 1688 curbing the transport of slaves from Madras arguing, in his words, that the trade had become more trouble than it was worth. Firstly the availability of slaves after the previous year’s famine had dried up, and the Mughal government had, again in his words, “brought great complaints & troubles…for the loss of their Children & Servants Sperited and Stoln from them.” With no profit left for the company and a hostile Mughal administration demanding abolition, Elihu Yale was obliged to comply.
In the last years of his presidency, charges of corruption were brought against Elihu. He was eventually removed in 1692 but stayed on in Madras trying to clear his name. He finally returned to England in 1699. He had amassed substantial wealth from his trade in cotton goods and slaves. He maintained a luxurious home in London, spent lavishly and continued to exert political and commercial influence as a diamond trader.
He bought the mansion house of Latimer, twenty miles from London, in the lovely valley of the River Chess. In addition to his large house in Queen Square he had bought two houses in Southampton Row. He had also bought a small house at the corner of Brunswick Row and several coach houses and stables. He needed them all to store his paintings and objects of art which had crowded his family home. He apparently had an acute desire to “collect,” and thanks to his very large fortune he was able to gratify this mania. His large collection consisted of pictures, jewels, gold and silver watches, clocks with several motions, velvets, broad-cloths, silks and muslins, mathematical and surgical instruments, curious firearms, swords and canes, beautifully incised and inlaid screens from Japan and China, carved chests, fine snuff-boxes, and many curiosities in gold, silver and agate. After his death, it took more than thirty auction sales to dispose off his effects. He even sent home from Madras some mango pickle for a friend – who returned the favour with a fine bottle of ale.
Elihu Yale died in London in 1721 and was buried at his ancestral town of Wrexham in Wales. A plaque was placed in 1927 near the place of his birth in Scollay Square in Boston, and another in St. Mary’s church, Chennai to acknowledge the naming of Yale University.
His name as the eponymous benefactor of a leading US university will live forever. But so shall his reputation as a slave trader of Tamil natives.