An Astounding Tale of Slavery and Deceit: Yale’s Madras Connection

Here’s how Yale University is linked to Madras.

6 min read
Hindi Female

Following years of debate and protests, Yale University recently announced plans to rename its Calhoun College – named after former US vice-president John, who is remembered as being an advocate of slavery.

The Calhoun College, one of the University's 12 undergraduate residential colleges, will now be named to honour Grace Murray Hopper, a computer pioneer who went on to become a US Navy rear admiral.


Hopper, like Calhoun, is an alumnus of Yale, and was posthumously awarded the presidential medal of freedom last year by Barack Obama.

“The decision to change a college’s name is not one we take lightly, but John C Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a 'positive good' fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values,” Yale President Peter Salovey said.

Just last year, Salovey had said that the name of Calhoun College would not be changed.

Here’s how Yale University is linked to Madras.
Yale University Old Campus. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
Referring to it, he told Yale News, “At that time, as now, I was committed to confronting, not erasing, our history. I was concerned about inviting a series of name changes that would obscure Yale’s past. These concerns remain paramount, but we have since established an enduring set of principles that address them. The principles establish a strong presumption against renaming buildings, ensure respect for our past, and enable thoughtful review of any future requests for change.”

Chequered History of the Man Whose Name Yale Bears and the Madras Connection

Yale, founded in 1701, is the third oldest institution of higher education in the United States.

The University got its name from Elihu Yale, a British merchant who served as the governor of the East India Company settlement in Fort Saint George at Madras.

Here’s how Yale University is linked to Madras.
Elihu Yale by Enoch Seeman. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Born in 1649 in Massachusetts, Yale moved to London with his family when he was around three years of age. After finish his education, he started working for the East India Company in 1671, and reached Madras a year later.

Though one of the most prestigious institutions in the world today bears his name, Elihu's reputation however was not exactly a good one.

This is how historian Vakula S Varadarajan described Elihu, according to a piece in The Hindu. “Arrogant, ruthless braggart (his garden-house was known for his scandalous relationships), Welshman Elihu Yale was born on April 5, 1649 in Boston, joined the East India Company in 1671, became president/governor of St George Fort in 1687, but was removed from the post for indulging in private trade.”

It was also during his stay in present day Chennai that he got married to Catherine Hynmers at the St Mary's Church at Fort St George and it was the first wedding to be registered in this church, The Hindu report stated.

Here’s how Yale University is linked to Madras.
St Mary’s Church altar. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Catherine was the widow of Joseph Hynmers, who was the governor of Madras in the 1670s.

The reason for Elihu’s removal from office was self-aggrandizement at company expense. He was accused of amassing huge wealth, by cheating both his employers and the people of India, and made to pay a fine; he had to stay in Madras till 1699. 

When Elihu had come to India, he was just an entry-level company "writer" who had an annual salary £10. When he left India though, his wealth had increased manifold.

Reviewing ‘Elihu Yale’ by Diana Scarisbrick and Benjamin Zucker, Charles Dameron wrote for The Wall Street Journal, “The precise size of his fortune by the time he left India is unclear, but his assets were numerous enough that their disposal at his death required seven separate auctions.”

He however was able to take a sizable fortune with him to England and soon he entered the diamond trade in London, along with turning philanthropist.



A blog titled "Elihu Yale was a Slave Trader" on Digital Histories at Yale tells of a dark side of Elihu Yale that not many may know of.

“In the 1680s, when Yale served on the governing council at Fort St George on the Madras coast, a devastating famine led to an uptick in the local slave trade. As more and more bodies became available on the open market, Yale and other company officials took advantage of the labor surplus, buying hundreds of slaves and shipping them to the English colony on Saint Helena,” it said. 

"Yale participated in a meeting that ordered a minimum of ten slaves sent on every outbound European ship. In just one month in 1687, Fort St George exported at least 665 individuals. As governor and president of the Madras settlement, Yale enforced the ten-slaves-per-vessel rule. On two separate occasions, he sentenced 'black Criminalls' accused of burglary to suffer whipping, branding, and foreign enslavement. Although he probably did not own any of these people – the majority were held as the property of the East India Company – he certainly profited both directly and indirectly from their sale," it stated.

Here’s how Yale University is linked to Madras.
Fort St George, Chennai. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

How Yale Came Into Being

The Yale University was earlier known as Collegiate School at Saybrook, and in 1713, Elihu had made his first donation to the institution in the form of 32 books.

The Saybrook school moved to New Haven in 1716 and in 1718, Cotton Mather, an American Congregational minister and author, wrote to Elihu asking him to make a donation to the school. Cotton hinted that if Elihu did provide them with a grant, they would rename the school after him.

Yale gifted the school books, textiles and a portrait of King George I which were then sold in Boston for £800. This money was put in the construction of the Yale college. Elihu’s gift was "the largest private contribution made to the college for the next century".

Last year, when Yale announced the creation of "Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming", Roger Kimball, editor and publisher of the New Criterion, in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, wrote how Calhoun was just an "amateur" when compared to Elihu.

“In the great racism sweepstakes, John Calhoun was an amateur. Far more egregious was Elihu Yale, the philanthropist whose benefactions helped found the University. As an administrator in India, he was deeply involved in the slave trade. He always made sure that ships leaving his jurisdiction for Europe carried at least 10 slaves. I propose that the committee on renaming table the issue of Calhoun College and concentrate on the far more flagrant name ‘Yale’,” he wrote. 
Here’s how Yale University is linked to Madras.
Yale University. (Photo: Facebook/Yale University)

Yale President Peter Salovey, after announcing that Calhoun College will be renamed, also made a reference to Elihu Yale.

He said, "As the Witt report reminds us, honoring a namesake whose legacy so sharply conflicts with the University’s values should weigh especially heavily when the name adorns a residential college, which plays a key role in forming community at Yale. Moreover, unlike, for example, Elihu Yale, who made a gift that supported the founding of our University, or other namesakes who have close historical connections to Yale, Calhoun has no similarly strong association with our campus."


Roger Kimball has once again countered the University's views asking what exactly its statement meant.

"As far as I have been able to determine, Elihu Yale never set foot in New Haven. His benefaction of some books and goods worth £800 helped found Yale College, not Yale University. And whereas the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica praises Calhoun for his 'just and kind' treatment of slaves and the 'stainless integrity' of his character, Elihu Yale had slaves flogged, hanged a stable boy for stealing a horse, and was eventually removed from his post in India for corruption. Is all that not 'fundamentally at odds' with the mission of Peter Salovey’s Yale?" he wrote in a recent piece for WSJ.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from news and world

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More