The Logic of the Antislavery Movement

The following is the text of a presentation I gave at the Antislavery Usable Past workshop at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation. For more information about the conference and the paper, please click here.

I would like to talk about two things today: capitalism and abolitionist missionaries in Africa in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. I am interested in both of these things, and I think they are related in an important way. First, I want to dwell for a bit on capitalism as an interpretive lens for understanding the problem of slavery and abolition. And that leads me to this quote:

Whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep silent about fascism.

– Max Horkheimer (1939)

This is a famous quote. We can call it the Horkheimer thesis. It’s quite controversial, but it’s also very true, and most of the controversy is about the extent of its true-ness. There also seems to be a nineteenth century parallel to the Horkheimer thesis. There is no direct quote, but it might be paraphrased as follows:

Whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep silent about slavery.

-Edward Baptist
Sven Beckert
Seth Rockman
Caitlin Rosenthal
Walter Johnson
Dale Tomich
etc., etc.

We might call this the new synthesis in slavery studies, which has emerged rather quickly over the past two or three years (although it’s rooted in earlier work and much older debates in the field).

While earlier work tended to focus on individual slaveholding economies and the extent to which they were capitalist, or pre-capitalist, or feudal (or whatever Eugene Genovese thought slavery was about), this new work sidesteps those questions by exploring how African chattel slavery was integral to the entire process of capitalist globalization. Although they did not have all of the benefit of hindsight, contemporaries recognized this curious phenomenon as it was unfolding, and this brings me to the following quote from Marx:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry…Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.

-Karl Marx (1846)

This is a great quote to use with students in classroom discussions, or as an essay prompt (Do you agree with Marx? Why or why not?). In a way, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is an extremely elaborate answer to this question. The new synthesis on nineteenth-century chattel slavery also helps to explain, at least in part, why slavery continues to persist in the modern global economy. If slavery is integral to capitalism, at least in some sense, and if we are living in an age of unprecedented capitalist hegemony, as pretty much everyone seems to agree, then of course slavery will continue to be a problem. And it will continue to be a problem, I would like to suggest, until we fully acknowledge and understand the central role that various forms of unfree labor play in capitalist economies. And this brings me to the topic of abolitionism.

If, as the new synthesis suggests, one cannot talk about slavery without talking about capitalism, then the same must be true, at least to some extent, about abolitionism. If slavery is integral to capitalism, then antislavery must, at least in some way, be about anti-capitalism. Now, I don’t want to suggest that abolitionists were running around in Che Guevara t-shirts, waving AK-47s, and talking about the dictatorship of the proletariat (although a minority of abolitionists, I think, did stuff that could be considered roughly equivalent). Many, if not most, abolitionists sought a limited form of capitalism, without excess greed, or excess wealth, or excess exploitation. In that sense, their views were very similar to those recently articulated by Pope Francis, and they can be traced, in part, to the same egalitarian traditions in the New Testament (in its Catholic form, it’s known as Distributism).

As most of you folks probably know, there is an extensive literature on the relationship between capitalism and abolitionism, stretching back to Eric Williams, who set the terms of the debate, for better or for worse, back in the 1940s. But it’s been relatively quiet over the past few decades, and it remains to be seen how the new synthesis in slavery studies will challenge what we know about abolitionism. Even if the answers are not clear at this point, however, it should not stop us from asking the questions.

George JulianIn thinking about the lessons of antislavery (the question of this conference), it occurred to me to investigate what the original abolitionists had to say about this. What lessons did they see in their movement? As it turns out, they said quite a bit, and some of them even said stuff about capitalism. One of the most important moments, when abolitionists gathered to collectively reflect on their movement, was the big “Antislavery Reunion” in Chicago in the summer of 1874. And one of the featured speakers at this reunion was George Julian. A congressman from Indiana, Julian was an old-school abolitionist, a lawyer who had helped organize both the Free Soil and the Republican parties. His long involvement in the movement had led him to some of the same conclusions that Marx had reached earlier, and he also anticipated some of the conclusions of the new synthesis in slavery studies.

Julian’s speech in Chicago was aptly titled: “The Lessons of the Anti-Slavery Conflict.” And in this speech he devoted a large amount of time to what he called “the slavery question in other forms.” One of the most important lessons of antislavery, Julian argued, was women’s rights. This will come as no surprise to students of first-wave feminism and its deep roots in abolitionist political culture. But equally, if not more important, according to Julian, was the struggle against capitalism. “African slavery was simply one form of the domination of capital over the poor,” he argued.

The system of Southern slavery was the natural outgrowth of that generally accepted political philosophy which makes the protection of property the chief end of Government. It was only the strongly-emphasized expression of the maxim that ‘capital should own labor’…The labor question, as I have often said, is the natural successor and logical sequence of the slavery question. It is the slavery question, renewed in other forms and generalized. The abolition of poverty is the next work in order after converting the African chattel into a man, and the Abolitionist who does not see this fails to grasp the logic of the Anti-Slavery movement.

-George Julian (1874)

Not long after Julian gave his speech about capital and the persistence of different forms of enslavement, the abolitionist conventioneers gathered to celebrate the American Missionary Association. “It alone of all the earlier Anti-Slavery organizations retains a vigorous existence,” read their report. “It embodies much of the old Abolition feeling,” they continued, “now happily turned toward the intellectual and moral culture of the freedmen.” So, in other words, here was another antislavery lesson.

Founded in 1846, but with roots reaching back a decade earlier, the AMA was the largest, the longest-running, and the most wide-reaching abolitionist organization in the United States. Although best known for its educational work among former slaves, the AMA supported similar efforts among Chinese immigrants, Native Americans, and the white working class. And its foreign department included stations in Canada, Egypt, Haiti, Hawaii, Jamaica, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Thailand, and the Marquesas Islands, among other places.

The AMA’s Mendi Mission, located in what is now southern Sierra Leone, was its flagship project for almost four decades, running between 1842 and 1882. Established as an extension of the Amistad slave revolt, the mission was a transatlantic branch of the Underground Railroad and a key frontier of action and imagination in the global contest over slavery. The mission also challenges conventional interpretations of the Civil War era. Well over one hundred ministers and teachers of different genders, colors, and backgrounds served as a bridge linking religion and politics across two continents, and their attempts to reconstruct Africa prefigured and complimented postwar southern reconstruction. There is a lot more that needs to be said about the AMA and the Mendi Mission, but in the time that I have remaining, I will limit myself to some of the missionaries’ experiments in free labor and labor discipline, because this is where I think the African-American story of the Mendi Mission intersects with the big, macro-level, global capitalism story that I mentioned at the beginning of my talk.

I should point out that by “free labor,” abolitionists meant free as in speech, not free as in beer. (Although I think there are some interesting tensions in that language.) There is a modest body of literature on the free produce and free labor movements, but surprisingly little on the movements’ African dimensions. As it turns out, agricultural production was a longstanding project at the Mendi Mission. As early as 1839, mission founder Augustus Hanson had suggested farm work as a path to racial uplift. Abolitionist missionary William Raymond concurred. “The slave trade will not be stopped,” he prophesied, “and the people raised from their degradation, until their attention is directed to the cultivation of the soil.” By the 1850s, the mission’s geographic headquarters at Kaw Mendi boasted a small field, which supplied root vegetables and other staples for local consumption. The African men who worked on the farm were intended as living advertisements for the free labor system, and the missionaries kept meticulous records of their attendance, productivity, and wages. Although the mission was never self-sustaining, manual labor of this sort was considered important. Working on the land would encourage discipline and “manly independence.” By occupying idle hands and minds, it would prevent the cycle of civil war that fed the slave trade. Most importantly, it would provide an economic alternative to mercantile networks in tobacco, rum, weapons, and slaves.

The Mendi missionaries made several attempts to introduce an export economy in free labor cotton and sugar. Although cotton grew naturally in the region and Mende weavers carried on an extensive clothing trade, the missionaries’ goal was to increase output on a global scale. Henry Miles, a leader in the Free Labor movement in the United States, encouraged these efforts. It was, he wrote to his African colleagues, “useless to attempt to put down slavery by argument or even by legislation while we persist in upholding the slaveholder by acting the part of agents in commerce for his benefit.” After his son, Richard, signed up for the Mendi Mission, Miles sent cottonseeds and facilitated contact with free labor manufacturers in Manchester, England.

With the start of the Civil War in 1861, the missionaries saw a golden opportunity to enter the global marketplace. Since “American Slavery owes its continued existence and power to the great and increasing demand for cotton,” they reasoned, a new supply from African workers would put the entire system out of business. Although retired from the mission by this time, abolitionist celebrity George Thompson proposed a 500-acre cotton plantation on the West African littoral, complete with its own city, over which he would “have just as full control, as any king.”

So that gives you a sense of some of the stakes involved in this project, and the big plans that American abolitionists had in store for the African economy. And it’s worth pointing out that it was not only the Mendi Missionaries doing this. The missionaries maintained active links with the African Civilization Society, the British Freedmen’s Aid Society, Liberian settlers, the Basel mission on the Gold Coast, and other groups attempting similar free labor experiments. Pro-slavery apologists even floated fanciful ideas in the 1850s and 1860s to send southern American slaveholders and overseers to Africa to teach labor discipline to the allegedly “lazy” inhabitants. To these men, the entire continent was “only a great wilderness of loungers.” Abolitionists sometimes fell into similar rhetoric, but unlike their opponents, they placed the blame for African “degradation” on the slave trade and its legacies within the global economy.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of the Mendi Mission was the John Brown steamship. Named after the militant abolitionist, who had led an ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, the ship was a symbol of the bustling economic transition that the missionaries hoped to accomplish in Africa. In fact, it was the first mercantile vessel of its kind in that part of the continent. As a representative of the mission, it refused to transport spirituous liquors or other material considered harmful to African industry and progress. Constructed in the early 1880s, as the memory of John Brown began to be supplanted in the United States by the defeat of Reconstruction and the culture of reconciliation, the John Brown steamship also sent a message that the memory of radical abolitionism would live on, outside the borders of the United States.

Of course, all of these utopian schemes for the economic transformation of Africa were no match for reality. Most free labor projects failed miserably due to a lack of funds, poor organization, or tropical disease. Where it took hold, an increase in legitimate commercial activity actually tended to bolster indigenous forms of slavery. At the same time, the Mendi missionaries faced strikes, desertions, theft, and a general lack of interest in their strict labor regime. Although the missionaries eventually established a moderately successful lumber mill at Avery station, near what is now Mano on the Bagru River, the settlement was never self-supporting, and the mill was eventually destroyed during the anti-colonial “Hut Tax” Revolt of 1898.

It would be easy to conclude that the Mendi missionaries did not learn the lessons of Marx, or George Julian, or the new synthesis in slavery studies. But that is not really true. Most of the missionaries were at least vaguely aware of these issues. And most missionaries realized that economic transformation alone would not be enough to completely abolish slavery. All of the missionaries recognized the central role of warfare in the perpetuation of African slavery (and slavery more generally). In fact, we can still see this today, in places like Iraq and Syria. “Put an end to war,” wrote missionary James Tefft in 1854, “and the slave-trade cannot be carried on. Stop the slave-trade, and there remains no cause for war.” Of course, exactly how to go about stopping war, or exactly how to go about stopping the slave trade, were complicated strategic questions.

Barnabas RootThere was an interesting split among the Mendi missionaries on this issue. Some of them, perhaps the majority, felt that British, or American, or French imperial forces were necessary allies of the mission. Providing the secular stick to the mission’s cultural carrot, these forces would pacify the African landscape and create a more business-friendly environment for foreign investment and trade. Others felt that such efforts were counter-productive, merely replacing one form of warfare with another. And they tended to support the rights of indigenous African communities to determine their own fate. Missionary Barnabas Root, who was educated by American abolitionists in Africa, and who led a church in Reconstruction-era Alabama before returning to his home, made this point clear. Rather than forcing foreign cultural norms on West African people, he wrote in 1876: “I am strongly in favor of going half way to meet the people in these respects when it can be done…I would prefer that Christianity come unattended by that officious hand-maiden modern civilization.”

So what can the experience of abolitionist missionaries in Africa in the nineteenth century teach us about eliminating slavery in the twenty-first century? It is difficult to summarize such an extremely complex and important history in a short talk. But, even with this very cursory overview, I think we can discern two broad lessons. First, if we want to fight slavery effectively, we need to develop a more robust critique of global capitalism. Campaigns such as Slavery Footprint, which are a positive development, are not sufficient. No movement for free labor or fair trade, by itself, has ever succeeded in abolishing slavery. If we remain silent about capitalism, then we cannot talk about abolitionism. Secondly, if slavery is rooted in, and feeds off of warfare, then anyone interested in the abolition of slavery should be working alongside groups seeking an end to war – especially the culture of war that favors quick solutions by throwing guns and missiles at a problem, rather than long-term structural change. Without a more sophisticated appreciation of the intimate relationship between capitalism and slavery, and without participating in larger coalitions with groups working for a culture of peace, the movement against modern-day slavery will not succeed.

Prelude to an Open Access Presentation

This week is the eighth annual Open Access Week, and people all over the world are hosting events and liberating archives. For me, on this particular week, open access means sharing a conference paper. Earlier this month, I was privileged to attend a gathering of young scholars at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, in Hull, England. Part of the Antislavery Usable Past, a multifaceted, multiyear project funded by the British Government, the workshop brought together those working on both historical and contemporary forms of enslavement. The organizers asked us to reflect on the “lessons and legacies” of previous abolitionist movements. The topics ranged from the Middle Ages through present-day anti-trafficking and reparations campaigns, and the participants were super friendly and supportive. I got to meet some new European colleagues, and I even got to hang out with Shamere McKenzie, who runs an NGO for slavery survivors. My paper, entitled “John Brown in Africa,” looked at capitalism and the lessons of missionary abolitionism.

Under normal circumstances, I would never publish a conference presentation. They are works-in-progress, lacking proper citations, full of half-baked ideas and assumptions, and directed at a small group of experts – hardly appropriate for the unwashed masses. The paper that follows is no different. Yet the conference message of learning from the past to inform the struggle against slavery (and its legacies) in the present, deserves a wider audience. And the fortuitous conjunction with Open Access Week convinced me to cast aside my objections in this case. So, with all of the customary apologies for its flaws and in the spirit of open access, I will post the full text of my presentation as a separate article. Links embedded in the text will point to some of the original slides that I used in my talk (or the occasional outside reference). And, as always, your comments are welcome.

Digital Histories’ Greatest Hits

Greatest hits albums are a prickly genre. The format is simple enough: a compilation of an artist’s most popular singles, sometimes with a few rare or unreleased tracks thrown in to sweeten the deal. Many of these albums are just a cheap cash grab for big studios, an opportunity to sell the same song twice. The invention of the mixtape provided the first challenge to this model. In the age of iTunes and Google Music, why not just build your own playlist? There is also something profoundly offensive about reducing an entire career to a handful of catchy tracks. How would one create a greatest hits album for Beethoven? Or Neal Morse, for that matter? Some of his best songs are half an hour long. Would Danzig’s greatest hits be his entire discography?

Danzig’s Greatest Hit?

On the other hand, if it is done well, a “best of” album can offer an entry point into a broader musical world. Neil Young’s Decade and Queen’s Greatest Hits are often ranked among the best albums of the twentieth century. If artists are given the opportunity to remaster or remix old material, the result can be fresh and enlightening. Although it is rare, academic historians sometimes publish career retrospectives of their work. No one will compare them to the genius of Freddie Mercury. But they have their moments. Jill Lepore’s The Story of America and Marcus Rediker’s Outlaws of the Atlantic are good recent examples. Bloggers sometimes include a “best of” category to help introduce readers to their oeuvre. And, as I wind down my work on this site and begin the transition to a new phase in my career, I thought I might do the same for Digital Histories.

Over the past five years, I have published several dozen articles on this site, from historical and pedagogical essays to website reviews and technical guides. Printed together as a single document, they add up to about 130 pages. I was a little late adding Google Analytics into the mix, but I still have a pretty decent picture of what articles readers find most useful. So I compiled a “Top Ten” list as a separate page. I also added a link to the page at the top level of the site, where new visitors can easily find it. These are not necessarily the most important articles on the site, or even the most representative, but simply the ones that have attracted the highest number of unique page views according to Google.

Surprisingly, articles cross-posted on other blogs did not top the list. Some articles with inbound links from other websites did not even make the top ten. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media only account for about 10% of inbound traffic. Simple keyword searches (called “organic searches” in SEO lingo) make up most of the rest. So articles with popular search terms, such as “derrida” or “course management” or “slavery footprint,” tend to rank higher on the list. The posts on WordPress as a course management system and Elihu Yale as a slave trader were breakout hits. But others I consider significant did not even rate. My essay on teaching with runaway advertisements, which was included on HASTAC’s Pedagogy Project and generated some interesting conversations, did not make the top ten. Perhaps that is because most folks are reading it on HASTAC. As a rule, newer posts tend to have more page views than older ones, which may indicate that I have improved my blogging skills over the past several years. Or maybe it means that nobody clicks on older stuff. Readers of online content tend to follow the shiny penny and then quickly move on to something else.

What are some of your favorite “greatest hits” compilations? Is this a worthwhile subject for digital scholarship? How do we curate the best work? Should we even care which of our projects attract the most hits or have the most likes? Is not trying weird or unpopular things an important part of our mission? We simply do not know what will be important or impactful five or ten or twenty years from now. If we focus only on what is trending this minute, do we lose sight of what might be useful in the future?

The Secret History of the Severed Hands

Photo Credit: Andrew Norman Wilson
Photo Credit: Andrew Norman Wilson

Walter Isaacson is enamored of great men. As an author, he has published popular biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Steve Jobs (the latter sold 379,000 copies in its first week). As President of the elite Aspen Institute, he arranges for great and powerful men to network with other great and powerful men. As the managing editor of Time magazine and the CEO of CNN, he has reached for the heights of great man-dom himself. One of his books is simply called The Wise Men. He even edited a collection on what he calls “the Elusive Quality of Greatness.” This makes his latest study all the more surprising. Called The Innovators, it is anchored by a demure Victorian woman who was largely ignored during her short life and, for about 150 years thereafter, considered not really that great. A kind of group portrait of the digital revolution, the book begins and ends with Ada Lovelace.

The daughter of Lord Byron, socially privileged, chronically ill, and problematically married, Lovelace was the quintessential Victorian aristocrat. She was also a mathematical prodigy who envisioned the first computer program in a breathtaking work of theorizing tucked away at the bottom of an English translation of an Italian article about the work of someone else. When I screened a documentary about the Countess of Lovelace in my Digital History course this year, not a single student knew her name. By the end of the class period, all of them agreed that she was one of the most significant figures in the history of computing. (One of my students cited her as inspiration to write her senior thesis on the digital gender divide and recent efforts to bridge it.)

Isaacson is hardly the first to notice Ada Lovelace. That she occupies such a prominent place in his narrative is due to years of work by generations of scholars who have written articles and news stories, produced films and biographies, and founded an international Ada Lovelace Day. Isaacson does not shy away from her influence, and he connects her story to that of Grace Hopper, the Yale-educated mathematician who became one of the first and most important software developers. Like Lovelace, from whom she took inspiration, Hopper was overshadowed by her male collaborators. But she is slowly attracting more attention and now has her own annual conference. Together, these two privileged white women stand athwart the group of privileged white males who occupy the majority of Isaacson’s book.

The attention paid to Lovelace and Hopper is laudable. Still, they seem like simply another addition to the laundry list of great men. As Roy Rosenzweig pointed out long ago, the history of the digital age is just as much about the military-industrial complex and the Cold War and economic globalization as it is about eccentric geniuses toiling in obscurity. Focusing on the great men (or great women or great queer folk) can render invisible all of the not-so-great labor that birthed and midwifed the digital revolution. Much of this work was done by women. Women literally were the first computers. So this begs the question: what would a feminist history of computing look like?

hand2To me, it looks like a severed hand. All of us who use Google Books on a regular basis have seen them at some point, floating, disembodied, anonymous, usually feminine or non-white. People have been blogging about the hands for years. A Google worker famously lost his job after trying to film the bodies attached to them. The hands are printed in art books and compiled on Tumblr. Many of them evoke themes of race and class. Or, as the New Yorker put it, “a brown hand resting on a page of a beautiful old book.” The perceived disparity between the brown and the beautiful speaks volumes. Sometimes the hands communicate subtle messages. Consider the bejeweled hand pointing to a chapter in a biography of Napoleon. Or get lost in the psychedelic mystery that is A Serious Call to the Christian World, authored by “Jews.” One of my personal favorites is a small appendage with long nails and neon purple finger-condoms grasping the title page of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Who says there is no poetry in the everyday? In an instant, “the invisible hand” of the market is laid bare. These glitches are the material traces of the workers who actually power the digital revolution. The severed hand is the embodiment of a history.

Rooting through some early microfilm, I came across more hands. Black-and-white, grainy, but unmistakably female, complete with wedding rings and painted nails. Looking at another microfilm reel from the early 1940s, I saw yet more hands, also ringed, also female, and I realized that this had been going on for a long time. Like the women who programmed the first computers, their work was both invisible and glaring, ordinary and extraordinary. The same technology that was attempting to erase this manual labor was making it ever more visible. Here was an army of Ada Lovelaces, working in secret, processing material, cataloging, inventing, filming, scanning, and providing the essential groundwork and infrastructure for all that showy greatness. Although perhaps not of the Isaacsonian ilk, they quietly demand our attention.

Cross-posted at HASTAC

Elihu Yale was a Slave Trader

anonslaveNext week, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and the Yale Center for British Art are co-hosting a major international conference on slavery and British culture in the eighteenth century. The art exhibit associated with the conference is remarkable for many reasons, not least because it features a portrait of Elihu Yale being waited upon by a collared slave (euphemized as a “page” in the original listing). The painting is related to one held by the University Art Gallery, showing the same scene from a different perspective. And it is similar to another portrait of Yale with yet another collared slave (this time euphemized as a “servant”). This latter portrait, even more ominous and imperial than the first, is not a part of the exhibit. And that is a shame, because these paintings, and the larger conference of which they are a part, offer an opportunity to revisit the controversial and entangled history of slavery and universities.

Historians have long pointed out that Yale (the University) is deeply implicated in the institution of slavery. Many of its prominent buildings are named after slaveholders or slavery apologists. It housed so many southern students that it briefly seceded from the Union at the start of the Civil War. 1 Craig Wilder’s wonderful book Ebony & Ivy, published last year, shows that Yale is not alone in this regard. All of early America’s leading universities, both north and south, promoted and profited from slavery, racism, and colonialism. 2 At the same time, college campuses were battlegrounds where antislavery students and faculty engaged in dramatic confrontations with their opponents and developed new political movements. 3 Oddly enough, none of the scholarship on these issues mentions that Elihu Yale, the namesake of this august and venerable institution, was himself an active and successful slave trader.

As an official for the East India Company in Madras (present-day Chennai), Yale presided over an important node of the Indian Ocean slave trade. Much larger in duration and scope than its Atlantic counterpart, the Indian Ocean trade linked southeast Asia with the Middle East, the Indonesian archipelago, and the African littoral. On the subcontinent, it connected with and drew upon traditions of slavery and servitude that had flourished for generations. 4 In the 1680s, when Yale served on the governing council at Fort St. George on the Madras coast, a devastating famine led to an uptick in the local slave trade. As more and more bodies became available on the open market, Yale and other company officials took advantage of the labor surplus, buying hundreds of slaves and shipping them to the English colony on Saint Helena. Yale participated in a meeting that ordered a minimum of ten slaves sent on every outbound European ship. 5 In just one month in 1687, Fort St. George exported at least 665 individuals. 6 As governor and president of the Madras settlement, Yale enforced the ten-slaves-per-vessel rule. On two separate occasions, he sentenced “black Criminalls” accused of burglary to suffer whipping, branding, and foreign enslavement. 7 Although he probably did not own any of these people – the majority were held as the property of the East India Company – he certainly profited both directly and indirectly from their sale.

Some sources (including Wikipedia) portray Elihu Yale as an heroic abolitionist, almost single-handedly ending the slave trade in Madras. 8 This is incredibly misleading. During his tenure as governor, Yale made an effort to curb the stealing of children and others for the purpose of export. But a close reading of company documents reveals that it was anything but an act of humanitarian altruism. It was, in fact, the local Mughal government, which held more power than the tenuous English merchants, that insisted on abolition. Yale’s decree of May 1688 curbing the transport of slaves from Madras argued that the trade had become more trouble than it was worth. The surfeit of slaves from the previous year’s famine had dried up, and the indigenous government had “brought great complaints & troubles…for the loss of their Children & Servants Sperited and Stoln from them.” 9 With no profit left for the company and a hostile Mughal overlord demanding abolition, Yale was happy to comply.

Only one year later, in October 1689, Yale had no problem issuing orders for a company ship to travel to Madagascar, buy slaves, and transport them to the English colony on Sumatra. When they arrived by the hundreds, these unfortunate individuals were put to work as masons, carpenters, smiths, cooks, maids, gardeners, and porters. A select few even served as soldiers. In addition to free labor, they provided a strategic buffer against European rivals and further consolidated the company’s political and economic power. 10 African slaves in India and Indonesia, Indian slaves on St. Helena, rival empires jostling for control – the Indian Ocean trade was a complicated and convoluted melange. And Elihu Yale was right in the thick of it, directing it, turning it to his own advantage, and growing fat and rich from its spoils. This wealth, in the form of diamonds, textiles, and other luxury goods, enticed the founders of Yale College to pursue the famous merchant and to name their school in his honor. 11

Apologists might counter that Yale was a man of his time. Slavery was impossible to avoid, nobody opposed it, and most rich and successful people had a hand in it. None of that is true. In April 1688, less than a year after Yale became governor of Madras, a group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, issued a statement condemning slavery in the colony: “There is a saying that we shall doe to all men licke as we will be done ourselves; macking no difference of what generation, descent or Colour they are. and those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alicke?” Quakers shed their ties to slavery during the eighteenth century while building a reputation as profitable and successful merchants. And they were hardly the only ones to protest the institution. In 1712, a major slave rebellion erupted in New York City, in which at least nine Europeans and twenty-seven Africans lost their lives. Several years later, when Yale College took its present name, opposition to slavery was endemic across the British Empire. 12 This was the broader world in which Elihu Yale worked, schemed, and built his fortune.

The evidence establishing Yale’s involvement in the slave trade is clear and compelling. Thanks to the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and Duke University, almost all of the official records of Fort St. George are available online, and even more documents await future researchers. Those looking for further information can follow my footnotes. Hopefully other scholars will build on this record to paint a more complete picture of the stoic British gentleman and his dark, diminutive servants, forever bound together in those disturbing oil portraits.



  1. Antony Dugdale, J.J. Fueser, and J. Celso de Castro Alves, Yale, Slavery and Abolition (New Haven: The Amistad Committee, 2001); Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Feb. 2, 1861. See also
  2. Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013). See also
  3. Wilder touches on this subject briefly in his final chapter, and I have been working on an article that will (hopefully) expand the narrative.
  4. Gwyn Campbell (ed.), The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2004); Indrani Chatterjee and Richard M. Eaton (eds.), Slavery and South Asian History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); Richard B. Allen, European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500–1850 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2015).
  5. Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1686 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1913), 48; Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1687 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1916), 8.
  6. Henry Davison 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 (London: John Murray, 1913), 545.
  7. Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1688 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1916), 30, 137; Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1689 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1916), 99.
  8. See, for example, Hiram Bingham, Elihu Yale: The American Nabob of Queen Square (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1939), 167.
  9. Diary and Consultation Book of 1688, 19, 78-79.
  10. Records of Fort St. George: Letters from Fort St. George for 1689 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1916), 58-59; Records of Fort St. George: Letters from Fort St. George for 1693-94 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1921), 12. On imperial rivalry, especially as it developed over the next century, see Andrea Major, Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012), 49-84.
  11. Gauri Viswanathan, “The Naming of Yale College: British Imperialism and American Higher Education,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 85-108.
  12. Maurice Jackson, Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Kenneth Scott, “The Slave Insurrection in New York in 1712,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly, 45 (Jan. 1961), 43-74; Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).