Fort St. George stands at the center of the promenade reining in Marina Beach, a spectacular expanse of sand constituting the Indian coast in downtown my mother’s hometown of Chennai. Colonial rule over the city may have ended over half a century ago, but the old East India Company buildings within the fort’s walls are still the heart of the city. As I walk down York Street towards the fort’s museum, I pass scores of security guards stationed on the path to protect Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, Jayaram Jayalalitha. She occupies the same office that once housed the governor of the East India Company, an office that, three and a half centuries ago, was Elihu Yale’s.
Such reminders of Yale’s historic connection to India pop up everywhere in Chennai, the city that played host to Elihu Yale during his tenure as governor with the East India Company from 1687 to 1692. Today, the university’s relationship with India extends far beyond the borders of this city. The Yale-India Initiative at the MacMillan Center has expanded the university’s historically Eurocentric
curriculum to include a broader range of courses in South Asian studies and languages, as well as a solid roster of study abroad opportunities in India. Since the initiative started in 2008, Yale’s South Asian Studies program has become the largest at any American university. President Levin takes a trip to India every year, and Yale’s art galleries have organized several exhibitions of Indian art. But beneath today’s flourishing partnership lies a much more complex and controversial history for which our university has just begun to make amends, a history that begins with the governorship of Elihu Yale.
A Welshman born in Boston in 1649, Yale came to India in 1672 to work for the East India Company, the most powerful British trading outfit on the Indian subcontinent. He rose through the ranks to assume the position of governor for the Madras division in 1687, taking control of all operations in southeastern India and the company’s fort. (Madras was the British name for Chennai.) That same year, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb annexed the region. The Mughal official put in charge of the area began to demand that English corporations recognize his royal prerogative. The British government responded angrily to his demands by increasing the power allotted to the major players in colonial industries. Eli was asked to set up the Corporation of Madras, a charter that lent his division of the company a greater degree of protection under the British state.
Yale put this newfound power towards a host of bad ends. He began to use company funds for private investments, while the unreasonably high taxes he imposed on his subjects made him increasingly unpopular. He treated the local population with the brutality of a slave master, demanding long hours of labor of his employees and threatening harsh punishments for those who went against his will: when Yale heard that a young boy he employed had stolen a horse from the fort’s stables, Yale ordered him to be hanged — without any semblance of a trial. Yale’s spell as governor left him quite wealthy, but it wouldn’t last; after just five years, the East India Company charged him with embezzlement and dumped him from office.
But Yale experienced much greater loss during his time in Chennai. Drive several miles south from the fort along Marina Beach and you come across a beautiful, white cathedral, a little out of place in the fast-paced streets of Mylapore, Chennai’s historic center. The Gothic building is most famous for the tomb it covers, that of the apostle St. Thomas, who came to the city around 52 AD and later died in Mylapore. But Santhome Cathedral is also home to another tomb — that of David, Elihu’s son, who died at the age of three.
Elihu Yale relocated to London in 1699, where he maintained his wealth by entering the diamond trade. His affluence drew the attention of Jeremy Drummer, who was soliciting donations from well-off Londoners on behalf of the Collegiate School, founded in Saybrook, Connecticut, in 1701. Yale made his first donation to the school in 1713 and followed up on it with an even larger gift five years later. In gratitude, the Collegiate School took on his name and became Yale College.
Depicted in dramatic brushstrokes, Elihu sits in a decadent coat, gazing haughtily at the Yale trustees each time they gather in the Corporation Room at Woodbridge Hall. Around him, the accoutrements of his study — a red velveteen tablecloth, a lavishly carved chair — give him the air of royalty. Even the sea, seen in the window behind him, seems touched by Yale’s aura.
But one part of the picture is usually overlooked: obscured by the darkness in the bottom-left corner, a dark-skinned man stands with a metal collar around his neck, a historic way of marking property.
We know that Yale treated his Indian subjects like property, but did the man who gave our university its name also own slaves? From what sort of money did our campus and beginnings of an endowment originate? And most importantly, with the past set in stone, what can we do to make reparations for our history?
In late 2006 and early 2007, university administrators began to take seriously chronic complaints about the painting’s uncomfortable imagery. As many of the university’s Ivy League peers (most notably Brown) began to face scrutiny for their historic ties to slavery, students began to demand that people notice the slave sitting next to Yale. During the 2007 spring semester, the painting was replaced with another portrait of Yale, this time standing alone. University Secretary Linda Lorimer told the Yale Daily News that the university chose to remove the canvas because “the portrait is confusing without the explanation [that Elihu Yale did not own slaves].” Administrators defended Elihu along with a number of art historians, who explained that the slave was included only as a common symbol of the owner’s wealth and prestige.
Removing the painting didn’t entirely solve the problem. Lorimer’s statement feels more like a technical loophole when set against Elihu’s behavior in India. Perhaps he wasn’t a slave owner, but he still presided over Chennai at a time when Indian children were exported as slaves. His unjust punishments and association with colonial exploitation suggest injustices as wrong as owning slaves in America. His deeds may have occurred on foreign soil, but that makes them only easier to forget, not worthier of forgiveness. It would be ludicrous to remove the mark Elihu Yale left on the Collegiate School. But perhaps by recognizing the real justifications for taking down the painting, we can understand the necessity of making amends for the past. Yale’s creation of a mutually beneficial relationship with India has been crucial, but in order for it to continue, we must see this not as a gift to India but as an act of atonement.