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Chennai, History, People
The Yale Controversy
S V Kaushik
AUGUST 29, 2020

Yale University in the USA is famous for liberal education. In 2016, it ran into an awkward situation. Liberals loudly demanded that the name of Calhoun College, an affiliated college, be changed. Calhoun, a former US Vice President, had once declared slavery as a “positive good” for America; this was against the very humanistic values that Yale stood for. After much dithering, Yale yielded. In 2017, they removed Calhoun’s portrait from the College and changed its name. That was just the start.

Yale University is named after Elihu Yale. Back in 2007, the University had quietly removed a picture of Elihu from display, and replaced it with another. Why? The earlier picture showed Elihu and his friends being served by a young boy with brown skin; a metallic clamp-with-lock on the boy’s collar explicitly proved he was a SLAVE, not a servant. Clearly the administrators were hiding their embarrassment!

Yale Coat of Arms. This Public Domain image is made available by the National Library of Wales

Now, after the Calhoun incident, liberals asked why the University wanted to bear the name of a slave-owner. The University’s first defence was that Elihu was not “actually” a slave-owner. That was perhaps true. But further research showed, he was much, much worse. Calhoun, had no record of cruelty to his slaves; but Elihu presided over a huge slave racket, where slaves were whipped, branded and ill-treated. By comparison, Calhoun was a benign amateur.

Elihu Yale. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Elihu was a senior officer of the East India Company at the British colony of Madras (modern-day Chennai). In the 1680s, Madras was in the grips of a famine; naturally, unemployed youth flooded the slave market. Elihu and his colleagues enslaved hundreds of them and sent them to other British colonies. Initially petty criminals were brutally punished and enslaved; but when demand rose, even young children were deported to remote destinations, never to return. This continued when Elihu became Governor of Madras in 1687. He even issued an order that every ship leaving Madras should export at least 10 slaves! Elihu profited directly and indirectly from human cargo: he also made money on clandestine private deals!

Map of the Madras Presidency, by Edgar Thurston (1913)

Suddenly in 1688, Elihu ordered that the slave export be stopped. It was not out of remorse. In those days, the British colonies were under license from an Indian king. The Indian ruler who now controlled this region was Aurangzeb, the mighty Mughal emperor. He considered slavery inhumane and banned it. The British wouldn’t dare to disobey him. Moreover, the famine had passed, and it had become difficult to capture slaves. Elihu made the withdrawal seem like any other commercial decision: “the (slave) trade had become more trouble than it was worth”.

Elihu’s professional and private lives were scandalous too. So why was the Yale university named after him? Watch this short video for more on that story.

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