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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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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