Yale’s India connection
K.J.S. Chatrath

Elihu Yale
Elihu Yale

Recently I had written to a French Professor in Paris, whom I know as an Indophile, informing him of my new website on European Graves in India. I received a prompt mail in reply telling me that he was, for a few months, in the US, at Yale University, for giving a course on "Popular Religion in India’ during the fall term. One of the top Ivy League Universities running a course on popular religion in India and a French Professor going from Paris to Yale for providing the academic inputs — this globalisation of knowledge set me thinking. why should Yale be interested in religion in India? And gradually, with the help of the almost omniscient internet and some books I discovered some fascinating details of Yale’s Indian connection.

But first about the India-centric courses at Yale. The University has a South Asian Studies Council which manages the Programme of South Asian Studies. Besides programmes on learning Hindi and Tamil, it also runs a programme on "Understanding Bollywood". It recently launched, and very appropriately at that, on August 15 this year "The South Asian Independence Movement Project" with a mission to preserve the broadest historical record of the independence struggle in colonial South Asia involving people in today’s nations of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Studying in one of the three top Ivy League Universities of the US— Harvard, Princeton and Yale is a dream of every university level student the world over. But few of us are aware of Yale’s Indian Connection-Elihu Yale. In 1718 he was requested to make a donation to the university, which he did, and in consequence the University was rechristened as Yale. He was born in Boston and joined the service of the East India Company as a "Writer" or a clerk at `A310 a year. He travelled to Madras in India in 1670-1671 where he remained for 27 years and made a fortune. He made a significant contribution to the development of the company. In 1684 he was appointed Acting Governor of Fort St George and confirmed in the post three years later. He remained as the Governor of Madras from 1687 to 1692.

In 1680 he married a widow Catherine Hynmer. His wife brought him a fortune. They had four children, three daughters and a son who died shortly after birth. A fort at Tevenapatam, near Cuddalore, was sold by the Marathas to the English East India Company in 1690. It was named Fort St. David after the patron saint of Weles as the Governor of Madras at the time, Elihu Yale, was Welsh. It is said that the naming also had in mind David, the young son of Yale who had died around that time.

Elihu was replaced as Governor in 1692 and he returned to the UK in 1699. subsequently, he became the Governor of the then British colony of New York. The last 22 years of his life were spent between Wales and London. He died in London and was buried in St Giles Churchyard.

The inscription on his tomb which he wrote himself reads:-

""Elihu Yale was buried 22nd July 1721

Born in America, in Europe bred,

In Africa travelled, in Asia wed,

Where long he lived and thrived —in London dead.

Much good, some ill, he did, so hope’s all even,

And that his soul through mercie’s gone to heaven.

You that survive and read this tale, take card

For this most certain exist to prepare

Where blest in peace, the actions of the just

Smell sweet and blossom in silent dust."

Two recent developments before ending this story. With history come full circle of sorts, in 2004, the university introduced teaching of Tamil amongst its courses offered, from the starting point of the then Madras, where Yale stayed and made his fortune. Secondly showing a healthy sensitivity, the university recently decided to "retire" one of the portraits of Elihu Yale with a dark complexioned servant sitting at his feet from the university since some felt that it had racial overtones.