racism at home

The Indian history of the racist, slave-trading Yale University founder

The university has renamed a college to distance itself from a white supremacist – but what about Elihu Yale’s misdeeds?

Elihu Yale was only 24 when he crashed through the waves on a mussoola boat, landing on the rough sands outside Fort St George, an outpost for the East India Company on the Coromandel Coast known as Madras, now Chennai.

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 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, or one who displayed all the arrogance of the colonial race towards the native population, while taking a cue from the way that the ruling classes themselves behaved towards the people serving them.

This month, the famous Ivy League University founded by Elihu Yale made headlines for deciding to rename one of its colleges. Calhoun College, named after former US Vice President John Calhoun, would be renamed in honour of Grace Murray Hopper, a 1934 alumnus and US Navy rear admiral, for her valuable contributions to computer science.

The change was not merely cosmetic – Yale University’s President wrote in a letter to the campus community that “John Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately supported slavery as a ‘positive good’” was fundamentally at conflict with Yale’s mission and values. But as political commentators pointed out, Calhoun’s history with racial oppression was nothing compared to that of the university’s founding father.

Yale University. Credit: via Pixabay CC BY
Yale University. Credit: via Pixabay CC BY

This may explain why Elihu Yale is described as both a “merchant and philanthropist” by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and in politically conscious discourse, vilified as someone who encouraged (if not directly profited) from the practice of shipping slaves to remote parts of the English colonies. One of the most telling clues to Elihu Yale’s fondness for slaves may be found in two oil paintings that used to hang at the Yale University: in each of them, a floridly accoutred Yale is flaunting his good fortune with a small dark-skinned boy, a Tamil it would seem, by their side. What makes the image even more distasteful is that the boy wears a collar like a domesticated wild animal, around his neck.

In the mid-17th century, the settlement at Fort St George was described as one of the “most incommodious places in the world”, one which only attracted “dwarfish, crooked recruits”. A walk through St Mary’s Church, the oldest Protestant Church in India, is a memorial to the dead. The elaborate elegies are a testament to the youth of those who did not last even two monsoons before they succumbed to disease and fevers, not to mention the continuous jostling for power between the Danes, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the French. The Moghul representative at Golconda added his own clever machinations to keep the groups in a state of ferment.

The rewards, however, were high. As long as they fulfilled the Company brief to act as agents, procuring the fabled printed cotton goods, they were free to carry on their own business. And carry on they did: collecting rare gems, costly brocades, porcelain, carved chests, beautifully incised and inlaid screens from China and Japan, which began the vogue for all things “oriental”. We hear that aside from these luxury items, Yale also procured mango achar or pickle, for a neighbour back at home in Erdigg Park, Wales, close to where the Yale family had lived. In return, the neighbour sent him his finest ale.

Was it just good fortune or a propitious time for Yale to have arrived at the trading post at Fort St George? In 1672, a representative of the Sultan of Golconda had made a proclamation that the settlement at Madras would “remain wholly rented forever under the English, so long as the Sun and Moon endure and that they shall perpetually enjoy it”.

To this day, visitors to St Mary’s Church are led to a small corner to the rear, where the legend of Elihu Yale is celebrated – the young Yale had contributed 20 Pagodas or gold coins when the Church was being built. This amounted to three quarters of his salary at the time. Maybe he made up for it by marrying Catherine Hynmers, the widow of a rich merchant who had happened to be his best friend. Yale was the first person to get married at St Mary’s.

 St Mary's Church, Chennai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
St Mary's Church, Chennai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Yale corner also mentions the donation that was made during the founding of the Yale University in Connecticut, at the behest of Cotton Mather, who was looking for wealthy donors. He may have been told that Elihu Yale had been born in Boston, though after the family left North America, Yale never returned to his birthplace. But rumours of his lavish spending on the wedding of his two daughters, Susan and Catherine, to the members of the landed aristocracy in Wales must have reach Mather.

Yale passed away before he could make good on his promise for a large donation. The proceeds of the books, the fabulous printed cloths, or chintzes, which had survived him, amounted to a paltry 562 pounds, but this was enough to procure his fame. There is a quaint epitaph that Yale left in his will, to the memory of his rich widow: he signed his will, “To My Wicked Wife” and left the entry blank.

There’s also an oft-repeated story that Yale’s son David was suddenly taken ill when he was barely three years old. While in a state of delirium, the little boy opened his eyes for an instant and said: “Promise me that you will build a wonderful school in my memory.” The distraught father named a Fort in Cuddalore, Fort David. The boy’s grave can still be seen on the grounds of the Law Courts of Madras.

Yale used his position to fortify Fort St George, by channeling the two sluggish rivers that would safeguard the landward side of the garrison. He acquired several more villages – these are still known today as the bustling urban conurbations of Triplicane, Egmore, Pursawalkam and Tondiarpet. He minted coins and set up a local militia. In everything he did, Yale continued to behave like a nabob. In one instance, he pursued a groom that had stolen a horse right across the legal point of his jurisdiction to the river Cooum. When he caught up with him, he had the man hanged. Other members of the Council who had called him out for his wrong doings as Governor, died within the year of his leaving.

As Merlin Waterson commented in the Smithsonian magazine: “There is no shortage of evidence to show that Yale’s wealth was acquired through venality unrestrained by even 18th century standards.”

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.