Yale University’s Apology Sparks Reckoning with Legacy of Elihu Yale: Colonialism, Slavery, and Historical Scrutiny

Yale University recently issued a formal apology for its historical ties to slavery, sparking intense scrutiny regarding the association of Elihu Yale, after whom the prestigious institution is named, with colonialism and the slave trade in India. Elihu Yale, who served as the influential governor-president of the British East India Company in Madras during the 17th Century, bestowed a significant gift of about £1,162 ($1,486) to the university, leading to the naming honor.

“It’s equivalent of £206,000 today if you adjust it for inflation,” stated historian Prof Joseph Yannielli, highlighting the substantial nature of Yale’s contribution. Despite not being considered a large sum by contemporary standards, it significantly aided in the construction of an entire new building for the college. Elihu Yale, once celebrated as a philanthropist and collector of fine artifacts, is now under renewed scrutiny as a colonial figure implicated in the exploitation of India and involvement in the slave trade.

Yale University’s apology follows a comprehensive three-year investigation into its historical connections with slavery, spearheaded by Yale historian David Blight. The university’s statement acknowledged the examination of its ties to slavery, including the utilization of slave labor in constructing Yale buildings and the enrichment of prominent figures associated with the institution through slave ownership.

Accompanying the apology is the release of a comprehensive 448-page book by Prof Blight titled “Yale and Slavery: A history,” shedding light on Elihu Yale’s significant profits from slavery. Prof Blight’s research reveals Yale’s oversight of numerous transactions involving enslaved individuals for the East India Company, contributing to the Indian Ocean slave trade.

While the Atlantic slave trade is well-documented, Prof Yannielli suggests that the Indian Ocean trade was even more extensive due to its broader geographical reach, spanning from South East Asia to the Middle East and Africa, and lasting for an extended period. The investigation into Yale’s past is particularly pertinent given Yale University’s esteemed position as the third-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, with notable alumni including several US presidents.

Elihu Yale’s connection to Yale University stems from his generous donations and support, which significantly contributed to the institution’s development. His substantial gifts, including books, textiles, and a portrait of King George I, facilitated the construction of a new building for the college, subsequently named Yale College in his honor.

Despite Yale’s philanthropic endeavors, his tenure in Madras as governor-president was marred by accusations of corruption, arbitrary governance, and neglect of duty. Furthermore, historians point to Yale’s involvement in the slave trade and allegations of cruelty during his time in power. However, past biographers have often downplayed Yale’s ties to slavery, possibly due to limited access to historical records or a lack of recognition of its significance.

Prof Yannielli challenges claims suggesting Yale’s role as an abolitionist, asserting that historical evidence contradicts such assertions. While some earlier scholars may have overlooked Yale’s involvement in the slave trade, recent research, facilitated by digital access to archival materials, has shed new light on his connections to slavery and colonial exploitation.

The presence of a painting depicting Yale being served by a collared slave serves as compelling evidence of his association with slavery. Despite attempts to downplay his involvement, Prof Yannielli argues that Yale’s actions speak volumes, highlighting his active participation in the slave trade.

In light of Yale University’s apology and the renewed scrutiny of Elihu Yale’s legacy, questions arise regarding the institution’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. While the university pledges to promote a welcoming environment and support initiatives for inclusive economic growth, it remains steadfast in its decision not to consider a name change, despite past calls for such action.

As discussions surrounding historical accountability and racial justice continue to evolve, Elihu Yale’s complex legacy serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring impact of colonialism and slavery on contemporary institutions and society.

Yale University Issues Formal Apology for Historical Ties to Slavery

Yale University has issued a formal apology for its historical connections with slavery, acknowledging its past involvement and expressing regret for the actions of its early leaders. In a statement released on February 16th, the Ivy League institution stated, “Today … we recognize our university’s historical role in and associations with slavery … and we apologize for the ways that Yale’s leaders, over the course of our early history, participated in slavery.”

This apology coincided with the publication of the book Yale and Slavery: A History, authored by Yale history professor David W Blight and the Yale and Slavery Research Project. The book delves into Yale’s dark past, shedding light on its entanglements with slavery.

One significant aspect discussed in the book is the connection between Elihu Yale (1649-1721), after whom the university is named, and India. Yale, who was born into a wealthy merchant family in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1649, spent a considerable portion of his life in India, primarily in Madras (now Chennai), where he amassed wealth through various endeavors, including the slave trade.

Elihu Yale’s journey from Massachusetts to Madras began when he joined the East India Company as a clerk in 1670. After a brief stint at the company’s London office, he was appointed as a ‘writer’ and sent to India. Arriving in Madras in 1672, Yale quickly ascended the ranks within the company, eventually serving as the governor-president of Madras from 1684 to 1685, and again from 1687 to 1692.

During Yale’s tenure, the East India Company conducted extensive trade in Madras, including commerce in spices, textiles, and unfortunately, human beings. Yale was implicated in overseeing sales and adjudications of enslaved individuals for the company. Historian Joseph Yannielli noted Yale’s involvement in the slave trade, stating that he and other company officials took advantage of labor surpluses, purchasing hundreds of slaves and shipping them to English colonies.

While the exact extent of Yale’s personal involvement in the slave trade remains unclear, it is evident that his wealth, amassed during his time in Madras, was intertwined with the purchase and sale of human beings. Although Yale primarily profited from trade in various commodities, including cloth, silks, and precious jewels, historian David W Blight emphasizes that this commerce was inseparable from the slave trade prevalent in the bustling port of the British Empire.

One poignant piece of evidence linking Yale to slavery is a painting housed at the Yale Center for British Art. The painting depicts Yale and three other men in opulent 18th-century attire, accompanied by a child, likely of African or Indian descent, wearing a silver collar indicating enslavement. Edward Town, assistant curator at the Yale Center for British Art, explained that such collars were not merely restraints but symbols of high status and enforced servitude.

Following his time in India, Yale returned to England in 1699, having amassed significant wealth through his various ventures, including illicit trade and allegations of embezzlement. Despite his controversial reputation, he became a prominent collector of art and artifacts and a generous benefactor of the Collegiate School in New Haven, Connecticut.

Established by Calvinists in 1701, the Collegiate School struggled financially until Yale’s intervention. His substantial donations, including books, a portrait of King George I, and other items, helped fund the construction of the college building. In recognition of Yale’s contributions, the Collegiate School renamed itself Yale College in 1718, cementing his legacy as one of the institution’s most significant benefactors.

Yale’s complex legacy, historian David W Blight notes that while Elihu Yale’s name adorns one of America’s oldest institutions of higher learning, it is essential to acknowledge the darker aspects of his past, including his involvement in the slave trade. Yale University’s apology serves as a step towards confronting and addressing this troubling history, ensuring a more comprehensive understanding of the university’s origins and evolution.