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The Shame Of Yale University?

Enoch Seeman the younger
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Written by Alistair Parker

A new book, Yale and Slavery, impugns many of the university’s founders, among them the donor from whom the American college takes its name, Elihu Yale. Yale was, among other things, a servant of the East India Company in Madras (Chennai) in the late seventeenth century. Using his deep knowledge of the sources, Alistair Parker subjects the new claims that Elihu Yale was a slave trader and slave holder to careful scrutiny and demonstrates that the evidence does not support the assertion that he was either of these things.

Featured Image Caption: Portrait of Governor Elihu Yale (1649–1721) by Enoch Seeman the Younger, Yale University Art Gallery

In common with many similar institutions, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut has recently published a detailed assessment, undertaken over four years, of how a “multitude of Yale University’s founders, rectors, early presidents, faculty, donors, and graduates played roles in sustaining slavery, its ideological underpinnings, and its power”.[1] There are reasons for scepticism about its findings, particularly as they relate to a notable founding benefactor, Elihu Yale, after whom the University takes its name.

One of the founding trustees who established the forerunner school to Yale in 1701, for example, was the Rev. James Noyes, “a Christian Englishman in a colonial frontier society”, who owned four slaves. At that time, one in ten of property-owning Connecticut families were slaveholders, and slaves, in 1730, comprised 1.8% of the population of the colony. Noyes is one of many cited, connected to Yale, who owned several slaves in colonial America. Yet one fails to understand from this assessment the actual scale or importance of slavery to Yale University. It is interesting to learn that 207 gallons of rum were imported into England in 1698, that 43% of ships leaving New Haven in 1768-72 went to the West Indies, and that 18,000 enslaved Africans annually arrived in north and south America by the 1660s. But what is the implication of this data for the history of Yale?

One notes that Captain Theophilus Munson owned 2 slaves and donated £11 in the 1750s, that slave trader Philip Livingston of New York sent four sons to Yale in the 1730s, that George Berkeley bought three slaves and gave 1,000 books and a farm to Yale in 1733, and that enslaved labour partly built Yale’s Connecticut Hall in 1753 where three of the eight funders were slaveholders. Yet no sense emerges of the importance of slavery to Yale’s development overall.

One definite target is Elihu Yale (1649-1721), an English East India Company (EEIC) employee who rose to become President of Madras (now Chennai) between 1687 and 1692.  In Yale and Slavery David Blight, Professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition, suggests that EEIC Madras ‘sanctioned and regulated’ the “Indian Ocean slave trade which eventually matched the Atlantic in size and scope”, that Elihu Yale played a “key leadership role in the business of human trafficking”, and that “some portion of Yale’s considerable fortune … derived from … the purchase and sale of human beings”.

Elihu Yale has been previously judged as a very cultured, fashionable, able and rich philanthropist with a large arts and jewellery collection in London who never owned slaves and, as President and Governor, prohibited the trafficking of slaves in Madras.[2] The preface to the 1682-1685 Madras factory diary notes, whilst he was the book keeper, that “The second at Fort St George was Elihu Yale, a man far more able than the agent or governor”.[3]

Portrait of Elihu Yale

Portrait of Elihu Yale (with his London home in the background) possibly by Michael Dahl, Yale University Art Gallery

Yet Yale and Slavery invites a very different view of this English Nabob. The evidence cited is sparse and some is for support rather than illumination, like the line that a former Governor had a “personal guard of three or four hundred blacks”. That was referenced to Dexter’s 1918 history of Yale[4] which, in turn, cited “The old traveler, Dr Fryer, who visited Madras about 1675” – presumably John Fryer (1650-1733)[5] who visited in 1673. His splendid account of his travels undertaken 350 years ago did note “His Personal Guard confifts of 3 or 400 Blacks” but this does not suggest they were slaves given that non-Europeans were then commonly described by the English as ‘blacks’.

David Blight has claimed that “the East India Company conducted enormous commerce out of Madras”.[6] The importance of EEIC Madras on India’s east coast in the late 17th century needs better contextualisation than this. England then was not one of Europe’s premier states and, over the period 1699-1774, the entire Asian trade represented only about 14% of total English imports.[7] Even for the more active Dutch East India Company, then the wealthiest global commercial operation, “its slave trade accounted for only a half per cent of the total value of the V[erenigde]O[ostindische]C[ompagnie]trade in the eighteenth century”.[8] Politically, the EEIC had a tiny territorial hold at Madras (1640) and Bombay (1661) with the rest being unfortified trading factories, subject to arbitrary violence, Indian taxes, bribes or licence refusal. These outposts were reliant on infrequent and limited supplies of gold and silver from England, or their own trading, to purchase the spices, raw silk and Indian cotton for export. Indeed, in the absence of English funding and without permission from London, Fort St George at Madras was actually built in 1640 with local financing from natives, Indo-Portuguese and the factory merchants.[9] This was not, perhaps, the great imperial authority necessary to regulate a sub-continent’s trade.

As to the scale of slave trading in the region, the subject suffers from the lack of collated documentary material, but the oft-cited Richard Allen[10] suggested that the slave exports may have involved a million people, half transported by Europeans, largely by the French and substantially after 1800, in contrast to the 10-12 million transatlantic trades or the 17 million sold in the Arab world.[11] Nevertheless, Allen’s paper at Blight’s 2008 conference at Yale noted the British export of some 30,000 Indian convicts between 1787-1858 to the Bencoolen (Sumatra), Penang and Mauritius colonies.[12]

The EEIC certainly used slaves, in common with the rest of India, largely under Muslim invader rule. They were traditionally enslaved through war, debt or famine and commonly freed after a seven year period. Madras, for example, sent 17 ‘slaves’ to work in their Bantam factory in 1661.[13] Yale and Slavery cites Joseph Yannielli[14] who relies on some factory records[15] noting various decisions to enslave three black criminals, send 10 slaves on each St Helena ship, purchase slaves in Madagascar to transport to Bencoolen and “in just one month alone in 1687, Fort St. George exported at least 665 individuals”.

This requires correction and elucidation. The black criminals were convicted in jury trials; two of burglary and enslaved to set an example, and one of child stealing whose death sentence Elihu Yale commuted to slavery. The 130 slaves sent to St Helena (21 Jun & 4 Oct 1686) under President William Gyfford were actually paid labour for food production and were not for trading. During the famine, 200 were sent to Acheen in Sumatra for “not having the Rice to maintain them here, till we can otherwise of them, the famine still increasing” (11 Oct 1686).[16] At the Bencoolen colony they were to be paid and those unable to work were to be granted a small annual pension, in contrast to Yannielli’s conclusion that they were slaves.[17]

The reference to 665 slaves exported by the EEIC in ‘one month alone’ is a careless mistake.[18] Yannielli and many others probably relied upon Henry Love (1913)[19] who made the error. The 24 October 1687 entry in the Diary and Consultation book for Fort St George, Madras, is for the accounts of ‘Customer Robert Freeman’, the person in charge of customs taxes on sea imports and exports through Madras, recording ‘3’ in August and ‘665’ in September for the ‘Custome of Slaves’. These figures do not represent the number of slaves but the taxes charged in pagodas (gold coin), the local currency, and represent the custom duties or the import/export taxes charged by the EEIC on third parties (and not on the EEIC) at Madras: obviously the EEIC did not tax its own. A July edict earlier that year, levied an export duty of 1 pagoda per slave leading to the modern and incorrect conclusion that 665 ‘slaves’ were actually exported.

The EEIC Madras taxes on ‘slaves’ exported by third parties were 0.7% of the total custom tax levied in August but, exceptionally, 53% of the total in September 1687. Whilst this exceptional proportion may reflect the 1686-87 famine and the 1687 Mughal Golconda War, the only plausible explanation for this large and unusual tax revenue is the significant Portuguese resettlement from the town, by ship, to St. Thomas because of their unwillingness to pay house taxes (see 26 July 1687 diary entry).

Custom duties were usually set at 5% of value and justified as a revenue to pay for the town’s defence, policing, law courts and maintenance of common areas. It is probable that about a third of such went to the regional ruler as ‘rent’ as the publication’s editor suggests.[20] Previously, the leading community members, largely Indo-Portuguese, native merchants and Armenians, agreed to pay a monthly tax on their houses for these costs. Robert Freeman’s predecessor, Customer John Nicks, therefore reported monthly duties which included ‘Register of Houses & Slaves’. That item ran at an average 6.14% of all customs levied over the 12 months of 1686 and at less than 2% over the previous three years. For September and November 1687, he reported about half a pagoda revenue for “Registring of Slaves” being 0.1% and 0.3% of the total (25 Oct & 15 Dec). The total monthly revenues varied considerably, reflecting the region’s economic instability (famine) and great trade variability.[21] These numbers can only provide a window into slave exports or registrations by third parties through the EEIC port and not the EEIC’s own commercial activities. For that, one needs to turn to the lengthy details of EEIC cargoes in the factory records at Madras; those for Bengal, Sumatra, and other factories; and in the London Court Minutes.

The 1686-1689 Madras diary details at length the trading in commodities as one would expect from a commercial business but, overall, there is little in the 218 pages of any EEIC slave trading. There are few references to slaves, outside customs accounts, in both the Madras factory diaries for the earlier 1683-1685 or later 1687-1693 periods covering Yale’s employment.[22] There is, in particular, the Council order made under President William Gyfford, of 9 Nov 1682 “preventing the transportation of this Countrey people by sea and making them slaves in other Countreys[23] with breaches fined at 50 pagodas per person so transported. There is also the later Council order of 30 July 1687 under President Yale, to charge a customs tax of 1 pagoda per slave in view of the great number exported during the famine. Finally, there is the Council order of 14 May 1688 under President Yale, forbidding the purchase or export of slaves by Christian or native, directly or indirectly, from the Madras port or any adjacent ones. Yannielli suggests Yale was merely curbing the trade, that it was no longer worth doing and he only did so because of the “local Mughal government, which held more power than the tenuous English merchants, that insisted on abolition”.[24]

Pub sign for the Elihu Yale pub

Pub sign for the Elihu Yale pub in Wrexham where Yale’s family had lived. It was defaced with the word ‘racist’ in 2017.

Leaving aside the confirmation that the EEIC in Madras was in no position to regulate the trade, this critique does not acknowledge the contemporary custom for the poor to bind themselves as ‘slaves’ for a fixed-term because of debt or from an inability to pay Mughal taxes, or to sell their children during great famines in order for them to survive. The Order of May 1688 does note “the complaints & troubles from the Country Government, for the loss of their Children & Servants Spirited and Stoln from them” but the complaint is not about enslaving, but stealing by interlopers. Hence the Order provides for anyone to reclaim their “Children & Slaves Stolen”. It was this problem of stealing slaves and using the EEIC port for exports that led to the 1682 ban.

There is little to suggest the EEIC actively traded slaves out of Madras. Elihu Yale’s ‘guilt’ was by association in running a company in a country with slaves. Blight seeks to argue that though Yale’s personal wealth derived from trade in commodities like ‘cloth, silks, precious jewels, nevertheless ‘this commerce was inseparable from the slave trade’.[25] There is no evidence presented to suggest how the commerce was inseparable from the slave trade or that Elihu Yale owned or traded in slaves on his own account, which is unsurprising given how low the margins then were: slave values in Madras was pretty much the same as they were in Sumatra, being about 2 pagodas in 1678.[26] Consequently, it is very unlikely that such formed any part of his fortune, widely described elsewhere as being from diamond trading. Diamond trading was lucrative but was also often considered by London to be an acceptable form of private trading.[27] The July 1687 customs charge of 1 pagoda per slave implies a penal rate of near 50% on slave value, leading to the speculative suggestion that it was possibly intended to actually discourage the trade.

Clearly there were, and had been for millennia, slaves in India, and the EEIC, on a small scale, used and shipped ‘slaves’ in the period for plantation ambitions at Bencoolen (established in 1687) and St Helena (from 1658).[28] However, the term must be used with care in understanding its meaning over three centuries ago. After all, in the 1770s many American colonists referred to themselves as ‘slaves’ under the British Crown. The ambiguous EEIC archive material for India indicates that coerced or forced labour might often be better terms for the Company’s use of servants, rundeleers, peons, dubasses, and coolies in their factory settlements.

David Blight asserts that Yale “oversaw many sales, adjudications, and accountings of enslaved people for the East India Company”, which is itself highly questionable. In the very next sentence he adds, as if proof of this, that while Yale was a bookkeeper in Madras in 1680, he “was assigned a ‘peon’, a person in the Southeast Asian context who was bound to servitude as an attendant or an orderly, a common practice”. This is a simplistic swipe, possibly based upon confusion with the word’s meaning in Spanish America. In the Indian context, it was defined in 1830 as ‘Peon (probably a corruption of piyádah); A footman, a foot soldier. An inferior officer or servant employed in revenue, police, or judicial duties. He is sometimes armed with a sword and shield’,[29] following an 1826 definition.[30] It was used in the 19th century as a rank for a Bengal policeman, being below a sepoy and above a zemindar.[31] The pay rates for peons and other servants in Madras are documented in the factory records.[32]

In any event, a person bound to servitude is not a slave, and the elision from one to the other only confuses the historical record. Pace Blight, when Yale requested from the East India Company the right to appoint ‘servants’ to assist him in his work, he was not requesting slaves or, necessarily, indentured labour.[33] Yale, along with other Madras factors and agents, is frequently described by EEIC London as a ‘servant’ to the Company.

As it happens, the EEIC London instructions in 1659-60, for example, to “procure negroes for Madras” were only to do so if they were “willing to leave their countries and saile along without compulsion”.[34] Similarly, London directed that, with the purchase of Africans for the plantations, “any of these, if converted to Christianity, should, after seven years’ good service, be made free planters”.[35]

A careful reading of the highly detailed multi-volume works by William Foster, Ethel Bruce Sainsbury and Sir Charles Fawcett on the EEIC factories in India and London’s Court Minutes indicates that the Company was keen to attract merchants, weavers and labourers to their settlements,[36] concerned to alleviate famine or prevent unfair grain speculation, to protect private property, to provide judicial security and, most of all, to make a profit. It does, however, also indicate that the original paid labour in the EEIC Asian plantations was increasingly replaced by a harsher slave regime in the early 18th century before the EEIC Bombay and Madras Presidents banned slavery from their ports in 1789-90. But in the late seventeenth century, during Yale’s EEIC employment (1672-1692), the commerce of spices, silk, cotton, indigo and saltpetre remained the overwhelming focus rather than the failed or marginal plantation economies that only became important after Yale left India.

Blight notes that Yale was dismissed from the governorship because of “embezzlement charges” in October 1692 – possibly “the old story of private trade, jealousy on the part of his fellow-merchants, and suspicions and distrust at home as his wealth accumulated[37] – but he fails to note that he was fully vindicated by the Privy Council in March 1695, before Yale returned to England in February 1699.[38]

The evidence for Elihu Yale being a slave trader or owner fails even cursory scrutiny. Blight is forced to admit that “precisely whether or how many people Yale may have personally owned is not yet discernable” (sic)[39] despite his well-documented life. This newly-published narrative echoes with the finding of facts to suit theories. Thus – and unfortunately – it does not really help with the central question of ‘Yale and Slavery’. The evidence presented that the EEIC was significantly involved in slave trading at Madras in this period is tenuous, at best. Elihu Yale himself cannot be labelled a slave trader or slave holder, and the overall impact of slavery on Yale University remains unclear.

Elihu Yale's tomb

Elihu Yale’s tomb, St. Gile’s Church, Wrexham. 
It bears the following inscription:
‘Born in America, in Europe bred
In Africa travell’d and in Asia wed
Where long he liv’d and thriv’d; In London dead
Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all’s even
And that his soul thro’ mercy’s gone to Heaven
You that survive and read this tale, take care
For this most certain exit to prepare
Where blest in peace, the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the silent dust.’

 


 

Alistair Parker is a retired town planner and commercial real estate agent in London with a particular interest in the EEIC over 1625-1725, East African colonial history, various British Army regiments, Canterbury’s municipal government 1700-1835 and the Northamptonshire boot trade 1775-1948, largely as an as an amateur genealogist.

[1] David Blight, Yale and Slavery, A History (Yale University Press, 2024).

[2] Diane Scarisbrick and Benjamin Zucher, Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector and Patron (London, Thames and Hudson, 2014).

[3] Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1682-85 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1894).

[4] Franklin Dexter, A Selection from the Miscellaneous Historical Papers of Fifty Years (New Haven, Ct., 1918)

[5] John Fryer, A new account of East-India and Persia (London, 1698)

[6] Blight, Yale and Slavery, 43.

[7] Kirti Chaudhuri, The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company (Cambridge, 1978), 13.

[8] Matthias van Rossum ‘Towards a global perspective on early modern slave trade: prices of the enslaved in the Indian Ocean, Indonesian Archipelago and Atlantic worlds’, Journal of Global History, vol. 17, 1, 2022, 42-68.

[9] David Veevers, The Origins of the British Empire in Asia 1600-1750 (Cambridge, 2022)

[10] Richard Allen, ‘Satisfying the “Want for Labouring People”: European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean’, Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No.1, 2010, 67-8.

[11] David Gakunzi, ‘The Arab-Muslim Slave Trade. Lifting the Taboo’, Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 29, No. 3/4 (2018), 40-2.

[12] Richard Allen, “Abolitionism and New Systems of Slavery in the Indian Ocean During the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries”in Slavery and the Slave Trades in the Indian Ocean and Arab Worlds: Global Connections and Disconnections, Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference, Yale University, Nov. 2008.

[13] William Forster, The English Factories in India 1668-1669 (Oxford, 1927).

[14] Joseph Yannielli, ‘Elihu Yale Was a Slave Trader’, Digital Histories@Yale, 1 Nov 2014. https://digitalhistories.yctl.org/2014/11/01/elihu-yale-was-a-slave-trader/Yale

[15] Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1686 and 1687 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1913).

[16] The 1686 famine killed ‘at least 35,000’ (26 Dec 1686) of the town which was about 12% of the Madras population, estimated at 300,000 in 1668. See Henry Love, fn. 17 below.

[17] Richard Allen, ‘Abolitionism and New Systems of Slavery in the Indian Ocean During the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries’, 15-16.

[18] Professor Yannielli also makes the claim in a BBC article published on 13 March 2024. See Geeta Pandey,  ‘Elihu Yale: the cruel and greedy Yale benefactor who traded in Indian slaves’,

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-68444807

[19] Henry Love, Vestiges of Old Madras,1640-1800: Traced from the East India Company’s Records Preserved at Fort St. George and the India Office, and from Other Sources, vol. 1 (Murray, London 1913).

[20] Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1682-85 (ed. Arthur T. Pringle). See Pringle’s ‘Introduction’ to the year 1684, p. iv.

[21] Chaudhuri, The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company

[22] Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1686 and 1687

[23] Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1682-85 

[24] https://digitalhistories.yctl.org/2014/11/01/elihu-yale-was-a-slave-trader/

[25] Blight, Yale and Slavery, 44.

[26] Charles Fawcett, The English Factories in India 1678-84, Vol.4, (Oxford, 1955). This is unlike the transatlantic trade where the margin was of the order of 300-400%.

[27] Ethel Sainsbury, A Calendar of the Court of Minutes of the East India Company 1682-1685 (Oxford, 1929), Sept 1670 entry.

[28] Michael Bennett ‘Caribbean plantation economies as colonial models. The Case of the English East India Company and St. Helena in the late seventeenth century’, Atlantic Studies, Vol.20, 4, 2023, 508-39.

[29] ‘Affairs of the East India Company: Appendix D, glossary of oriental terms’, in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 62, 1830, (London, [n.d.]) pp. 1413-1434. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol62/pp1413-1434

[30] Peon is defined as “a foot soldier, an inferior officer or servant employed in the business of the revenue, police or judicature” in James Mill, The History of British India , Vol.1 (Baldwin, London, 1826)

[31] 1st – 5th Reports, Select Committee on Indian Territories, House of Commons, 2 May 1853 (line 2253).

[32] Radhika Seshan ‘ Wages and Price in Madras c.1650-1720’ in Jan Lucassen and Radhika Seshan (eds.), Wage Earners in India 1500–1900 : Regional Approaches in an International Context, (New Delhi, 2021), 85-108.

[33] Blight, Yale and Slavery, 43.

[34] Letter, London to Fort Cormantine, 23 Jun 1659 & 12 Sept 1660; ‘East India Company Correspondence 1657-1660’ British Library IOR/E/3/85. It is reflected in the low death rates aboard the ships, estimated at 3.7% over the period 1735-65 (Richard Allen, 2017).

[35] Ethel Sainsbury, A Calendar of the Court of Minutes of the East India Company 1668-1670 (Oxford,1929), 390.

[36] 22 Feb 1690, Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1690-93 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1917)

[37] Fanny Parker, Fort St George, Madras; a short history (London, 1900), 109.

[38] Hiram Bingham, Elihu Yale; the American Nabob of Queen Square, ( New York 1939), 293.

[39] Blight, Yale and Slavery, 45.

About the author

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Alistair Parker

Alistair Parker is a retired town planner and commercial real estate agent in London with a particular interest in the EEIC over 1625-1725, East African colonial history, various British Army regiments, Canterbury’s municipal government 1700-1835 and the Northamptonshire boot trade 1775-1948, largely as an as an amateur genealogist.