Yale University: the Indian connection

Connecticut Hall, oldest building on the Yale campus, built between 1750 and 1753 (courtesy: wikipedia.org)
Connecticut Hall, oldest building on the Yale campus, built between 1750 and 1753 (courtesy: wikipedia.org)

By Reginald Massey

On April 5, 1649 there was born in Boston, New England, a boy named Elihu Yale. The Yales were of Welsh ancestry from Plas yn Ial near the village of Llandegla in Denbigshire. Yale is apparently the English version of Ial. However, when he was three the family moved to London where Elihu attended a private school.
At the time the British East India Company was recuiting plucky young men
to serve in India. The call was “Go East Young Man!”

The young Yale answered the call and became ‘a cadet writer’, a trainee
clerk, and sailed for Madras, a trading settlement/colony on the south-
eastern coast of the Indian peninsula where the Company had built a citadel
called Fort Saint George at Madras, now called Chennai.

The heat was unbearable and the tropical diseases took a heavy toll.
Only the toughest and luckiest managed to survive.The British had to contend
not only with the local Indian population but also with their European
competitors, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese and even the Danes.
Yale worked hard, attended St Mary’s Church regularly and became the
church treasurer. It was there that he married Catherine Hynmers, the widow
of the former governor.This was the first marriage conducted in the church
which was the first Anglican church in India. Later the notorious Robert Clive
(‘Clive of India’) was also married there.

Within a few years Yale became the governor and thus the head of the East
India Company’s operations in South India. Apart from trading on behalf of his
employers he also started trading independently through his network of Indian
merchants and this is how he amassed his enormous wealth.

Apart from that he took advantage of the local practice of bonded labour.
He became, in fact, an accomplished trader in slaves. Through him East African
slaves were imported and sold in Western India where they were called Siddhis.
Even today there are groups of Siddhis living in isolated pockets in India’s
Gujarat state. From India itself Yale shipped slaves to Saint Helena or sold
them to Dutch and Portuguese traders who transported them to South East Asia.
It has to be understood that the East India Company was chartered only
to trade. It did not have the remit nor the intention of establishing its rule
in India. How and why the Company acquired vast territories in India can only
be described as a conspiracy of circumstances. India was in turmoil with the
last great Mughal emperor Aurangzeb trying to establish his suzerainty over the
warring principalities. The Company therefore had to maintain an army to protect
its employees, its warehouses, its goods and its harbours. The army was largely
recruited from India’s ‘martial castes’. This meant that the governor had
not only to be a clever businessmen but also an astute politician, a skilled
negotiator and, when necessary, a military leader.

At the time Aurangzeb was fighting the Marathas. Yale did a deal agreeing to
assist Aurangzeb against the Marathas. This ensured that the Company could pursue
its mercantile and territorial ambitions with impunity. Thus the Company snubbed
the Portuguese at San Thome and easily acquired Cuddalore. Yale, therefore,
in spite of his skulduggery was an important player for Britain’s commercial

News of the rich American-born Yale spread far and wide and Cotton Mather,
a Congregational minister, wrote to Yale and asked for a donation to the
Collegiate School then located in Saybrook Colony. Ironically the institution
trained students for the Congregational ministry. (When cash is needed not
many questions are ever asked about how the money was earned).
Yale judiciously sent some books, several bales of Indian textiles and
a portrait of George I. These were sold for £800, then a considerable sum.
The school soon moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and was named Yale College.
Later it became the internationally famous Yale University.

After he had left America at the age of three Yale never visited the land
of his birth. Nevertheless, on April 5, 1999 the university remembered its
benefactor’s 350th birth anniversary. But now that the facts of Yale’s unsavoury
past have emerged many are considering changing the name of the Ivy League
seat of learning. Some claim that he is the most over rated philanthropist
in American history.

In 1699 Elihu Yale returned to Britain and settled in Plas Grono near Wrexham.
He died on July 8, 1721 and is buried in the churchyard of St. Giles’ in Wrexham.
Yale who never suffered from the sin of shyness even composed his own epitaph
in verse.

In 1968 Chester Bowles, a Yale alumnus, was the US ambassador in India. He
and other Yale graduates, some of them Indians, donated money to repair
St Mary’s Church in Chennai and a plaque in memory of Yale was installed.