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.”