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.

 

Notes:

  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 http://www.yaleslavery.org.
  2. Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013). See also http://slavery-and-universities.wikispaces.com.
  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).

About Joseph Yannielli

I study the history of slavery and abolition, with a special focus on America, West Africa, and the wider world during the nineteenth century. I began this site as a graduate student in the Department of History at Yale University. I have participated in discussions around the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities, and I use technology to enhance my research and my teaching. I have also served as the manager and lead developer for a few projects, such as the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal and RunawayCT.

7 thoughts on “Elihu Yale was a Slave Trader

  1. Great work, Joe. While none of us can actually get “into the head” of Mr. Yale, the picture has become that much clearer, at least in my head, thanks to research and analysis which you have provided.

    While I’m quite sure racism will not go away completely, the state of the microclimate that is my world is certainly quite a contrast from those unfortunate slavery stories of old. I interact with peoples of all different races and ethnicities all day long and usually do not even think about it.

    Can we draw any parallels to today’s american capitalist society as far as the treatment of social classes compartmentalized due to aggregate wealth? It is a struggle to pay bills while balancing work/personal life, and taxation laws further compartmentalize the “haves” and “have-nots”.

    It may be a broad and vague connection to some, but how did this current (universal?) aforementioned struggle affect Mr. Yale hundreds of years ago? Was it parallel? Did the universal greed without regard for the reasoning behind the greed (which I see all over today) exist back then? Everyone wants the most “stuff” they can have, persuaded by society on many levels, yet access to most of it debilitates families financially.

    As a public school teacher, I see malnourished students with expensive technology in their hands, high-end clothing (with the name of the store on the front), etc. Many do not eat breakfast.

    I would never try to dismiss ANY of the heinous acts of violent transactions discussed in your research paper, as Mr. Yale was most certainly aware of the ramifications of his actions. Yet, I would posit a question: Does money eventually cause greed to inflate from a fleeting, temporary affliction which most of us (New Englanders at least?) have from time to time; to something more akin to a chronic disorder? So many see the end game of their jobs as becoming more and more wealthy (which in reality can be true of the uppermost 1%ers, raising the question of whether Mr. Yale was indeed one of those?), but in 99% of cases ends up being a carrot we chase, which gets further and further away.

    Thanks for all your hard work. I have to go to work now.

  2. Interesting article and so surprising to read. It just goes to show what money can buy; a prestigious name, , fabulous wealth, power, and a university(Yale) named after a conniver and money conscience person. Knowing the distinction between right and wrong didn’t faze Mr. Yale in the least. Terrible.

  3. Very interesting article on Yale’s involvement with slavery. Hard to believe today Mr. Yale would be participating in slavery, yet as you state, his involvement was more a product of that time and thought rather than his own conviction. Still, for a man that founded Yale University, you’d suspect he’d be a man of more independent thought and ethical action. The original spelling of the Germantown Quakers is a sobering reminder of those days. I found out last summer that Bristol RI, near my hometown, was a hotbed of slave trading. This is a part of history too many people do not realize or have/or want to be forgotten. It needs to be remembered. Glad the Craig Wilder book was helpful.

    Best regards on your completing your dissertation.

    Joe Faryniarz

  4. You should write an article for the alumni magazine. People need to know about this. It’s not just about history. How much of Yale’s endowment is invested in companies tied to modern slavery, fossil fuels, etc?

  5. Excellent info here, I am currently doing some research about Yale and found exactly what I was looing for.

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