Its benefactor and namesake, Elihu Yale, made a fortune from slave trading and plundering of Indian resources
Whoever wrote this epitaph must have been acutely aware that someday Elihu Yale will come under severe scrutiny.
Over the last few years, there has been fierce debate about whether Yale, a leading Ivy League School, should rename to detach itself from its namesake. The reason? Elihu Yale made money from the slave trade and plundering of Indian resources by unethical means.
In February 2017, Yale President Peter Salovey announced Calhoun College’s renaming to Grace Hopper College (one of 12 undergraduate residential colleges). Grace Murray Hopper (1906–1992) received M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale was one of its most distinguished graduates. She was a renowned computer scientist and also a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. Such a decision was the culmination of a strong public demand to distance Yale from John C Calhoun (1782–1850), the seventh Vice President of the United States from 1825 to 1832, and a known white supremacist. Salovey gave the following reason for taking such a decision: “…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 took this decision from a recommendation by a committee formed in August 2016 to draw a policy of removing historical names from buildings or other prominent structures or spaces. The Committee pointed out, among other things, that any such renaming would create a “slippery slope” down which many other building names would slide. It further noted, quite correctly, that the very name of the university might have to change.
Who was this Yale, and what made him so debated a person, then?
In the 17th century, two global companies offered the best career opportunity to young fortune seekers; the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) in Holland and the East India Company (EIC) in England. The respective governments extended all-out support to these two companies along with almost unlimited power and authority. Both had the right to mint coins, form alliances, maintain and use armed forces. As such, they could offer attractive career paths for anyone willing to take the risk and become rich. The ambitious and cunning could reap rich rewards from a career in any of EIC or VOC, as Oxford Professor Peter Frankopan summarizes in The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
Elihu Yale was born in Massachusetts in 1649 and moved to England with his parents at 3. He joined EIC as a writer in 1671 and quickly rose to become Governor of Fort Saint George (in the present Madras), an important trading post. Yale was in this role for five years (1687–1692) and utilized every opportunity to look after himself. Rumors were rife about how much wealth he had gained. He was said to have returned to England with five tons of spices, large quantities of diamonds, and innumerable precious objects.
Yale’s timing in India was perfect. In the 1680s, the Qing court in China opened foreign trade, and exports of tea, porcelain, and Chinese sugar surged. Mumbai and Madras ports became trading posts in a new and vibrant global trading network. A new age was dawning for Europe at the expense of Asia. The EIC officers utilized every conceivable opportunity to get more prosperous such as lending money at exorbitant interest rates, using company resources to benefit, and reaping outrageous profits for themselves. Serving the EIC was a sure way to fortune.
An article in India’s leading English daily, The Hindu, gives a detailed account of how Yale, as the Governor of the trading post in Madras, benefitted from the slave trade. Despite a prohibition on slave export, he allowed exporting 665 slaves in September of 1687 alone. Throughout his tenure, the Governor permitted ten slaves on every ship to England.
The American Heritage published an article in its May/June 1999 issue titled “Overrated and Underrated” by John Steel Gordon. It says that Elihu Yale was unduly overrated for his donation to Yale University, and “never has so much immortality been purchased for so paltry an eleemosynary sum.” According to Gordon, Yale donated EIC goods that sold for 562 pounds 12 shillings and a King George I portrait.
Despite Elihu Yale’s legacy, opinions in favor of keeping the Ivy Leave school’s current name are intense. Graeme Wood writes in The Atlantic: “The name of the university has long been divorced from the life of Elihu Yale. … The name Yale does not belong to Elihu, but to the university, with its faults and virtues, not his.”
On the other hand, passionate appeals request a change, such as one written by Sean O’Brien, a former student and ex-faculty member at Yale. He argues that Yale’s administration must follow the idealogy its president Salovey preaches when speaking on George Floyd, “Mr. Floyd’s death follows a pattern of racial injustice that has become too familiar in our country, and that amounts to a national emergency…. I believe that all of us at Yale must do what we can to replace fear with hope — and not with anything less than action.”
The Committee formed to review the demand for changing Calhoun College gave two important guidelines to Yale:
1. “When a name is altered, there are obligations on the University to ensure that the removal does not have the effect of erasing history.”
2. “When a name is retained, there may be obligations on the University to ensure that preservation does not have the effect of distorting history.”
Whether Yale decides to change its name or not, it’s pretty intriguing how actions and money from one corner of the world could have ramifications to another so far away and that after so many years.
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