All posts by Joseph Yannielli

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.

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).

Digital Humanities as a Universal Language

One of the nice things about the meta-discipline of the digital humanities is that it’s also an international movement. As Carol pointed out in her post on the global digital divide, this is not an easy feat to accomplish. The asymmetrical shape of economic development over the past several centuries has influenced the technological backbone that connects different parts of the world. As a result, digital humanities work tends to mirror the starkly divided, core-periphery dynamic of contemporary globalization. Marginalized regions remain bit players, while the wealthiest countries retain their gravitational pull as the center of life for the academic elite. At the same time, though, I have noticed a sharp increase in the global consciousness and outreach among the digerati. Recent and forthcoming conferences in Australia, England, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland offer proof that the digital humanities need not be conducted along narrow nationalist lines. And the historic HASTAC conference held this year in Lima, Peru, proves that this work does not have to be exclusively Anglo or Eurocentric, either. Around DH in 80 Days, which maps a select number of projects globally, is one of the best introductions to this emerging field.

The translatability of the digital humanities, its broad and easy appeal across conventional boundaries of ethnicity, class, culture, and nation, is one of its most amazing features. At its most basic level, it functions as a kind of universal language, like HTML or mathematics or heavy metal music. Little kids can do it. Your grandmother can do it. Able-bodied people can do it. Disabled people can do it. Privileged people can do it. Oppressed and marginalized people can do it. Even birds and bees do it. Although there is still a long way to go, I think the digital humanities hold the potential to accomplish that magnificent thing to which the traditional humanities have always aspired, but rarely achieved – a truly comprehensive and inclusive representation of humanity.

As one small contribution to this project, I will offer a completely shameless plug for a one-day conference at Paris Diderot University (Paris 7) in October. Focused on recent digital history projects, the event will bring together practitioners and researchers from the United States and France (and maybe elsewhere) to initiate a dialog. I will present on some of my experiences connecting research and teaching, with a special focus on my experimental digital history course and Constance Schulz, Professor Emerita at the University of South Carolina, will present on her NEH-funded scholarly editing project about two remarkable early American women. Additional details, including a map and schedule, are available here. I think it will be a wonderful opportunity to grow digital history work internationally, and if you happen to be in the area, I hope you will attend.

What is Digital History?

Chalkboard - What is Digital HistoryOne thing professional scholars everywhere love to do is to categorize, define, and explain, to erect borders and boundaries and partitions. There is a good reason the word “discipline” is at the heart of the academic industrial complex. It is discipline in both the good, self-control, zen sense and the bad, Michel Foucault sense of the word. There has been much debate over the past several years about whether Digital Humanities, and its subset Digital History, constitutes its own discipline, or whether it is fundamentally trans-disciplinary at its core. And what academic discipline worthy of the name is not essentially trans-disciplinary, anyway? Try as we might to impose categories on living reality, to sort into neat boxes of genus, species, and phylum, reality is not that static. It is constantly evolving, always in motion, always transitioning from one thing to the next.

There are a great many extremely interesting documents and manifestos floating around the web attempting to draw boundaries around the digital humanities, to tie it down, to reign it in and discipline it (in the Foucauldian sense). Jason Heppler’s approach to this problem, which presents a different definition each time the page is refreshed, continually remixing them into infinite combinations, is one of the best I have seen. Digital History, like the Digital Humanities, is a broad camp, capable of accommodating everything from the whimsical Serendip-o-matic to the brutal historiographical battles erupting on the back end of prominent Wikipedia pages. The Promise of Digital History, a Journal of American History roundtable discussion from way back in 2008, is a fair introduction to this particular genre of the digital. A breakdown of the document using Voyant reveals, among other things, a strong emphasis on open access. Together, these two words appear a total of 97 times. Ironically, and perhaps appropriately, the exchange itself is a daunting and hopelessly difficult-to-digest wall of text.

At the heart of this definitional battle is a fundamental status anxiety. Is Digital History just regular old history plus expensive computers? Is it, as Adam Kirsch argues about digital literary studies, just “fancy reiterations of conventional wisdom?” Or does it represent something new and qualitatively different? When I posed this question to my students this year, it produced some fascinating results.

Being one of those definition-obsessed academics, I always ask my students to unpack what may seem like everyday or familiar terms. What is freedom? What is slavery? What is civil war? What is Africa? What is America? So when tasked with teaching Digital History to a group of undergraduates, I naturally asked them to define what exactly that means. Actually, I first asked them to define History proper, and then we tried to figure out what makes it so different when done digitally. Of course, we were not alone in this endeavor. It is deeply interesting to observe different classes in different parts of the country generate different responses to similar prompts. Our answers, some of which you can see if you click on the chalkboard above, ranged from Cervantes and Foucault to the practical and the public. I suspect that if I had asked my students at the end of the class, after they submitted their final project, they would have added that Digital History is also really hard work. It requires discipline.

Rapid Development for the History Web

This year I was privileged to design and teach an experimental (and somewhat improvisational) course spanning multiple disciplines. It is one of a small number of Digital History courses offered at the undergraduate level in the United States and, to the best of my knowledge, the only course of its kind to require students to conceive, design, and execute an original historical website in a matter of weeks. Beginning with a short overview of the history of computing, the major part of the course deals with current debates and problems confronting historians in the Digital Age. Students read theoretical literature on topics such as the gender divide, big data, and the democratization of knowledge, as well as digital history projects spanning the range of human experience, from ancient Greece to modern Harlem. Guest speakers discussed the complexities of database design and the legal terrain of fair use, open access, and privacy. The complete syllabus is available here.

Unusually for a humanities class, the students engaged in a series of labs to build and test digital literacy skills. This culminated in a final project asking them to select, organize, and interpret a body of original source material. I solicited ideas and general areas of interest for the project and posted a list to the class blog that grew over the course of the semester. Students expressed interest in newspaper databases, amateur history and genealogy, text mining and topic modeling, local community initiatives, and communications, culture, and new media. I thought it was important to find a project that would speak to every student’s interest while not playing favorites with the subject matter. We considered a plan to scan and present an archive of old student and university publications. I thought it was a good idea. On the other hand, it would have involved at lot of time-consuming rote digitization, access to restricted library collections, and sharing of limited scanning facilities.

Ultimately, the students decided to build an interactive database of runaway advertisements printed in colonial and early national Connecticut. This seemed to satisfy every major area of interest on our list and, when I polled the class, there was broad consensus that it would be an interesting experiment. The project grew out of an earlier assignment, which asked students to review websites pertaining to the history of slavery and abolition. It also allowed me to draw on my academic background researching and teaching about runaways. We settled on Connecticut because it is a relatively small state with a small population, as well as home to the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper. At the same time, it was an important colonial outpost and deeply involved in the slave trade and other forms of unfree labor on a variety of fronts.

RunawayCT_projectDrawing on the site reviews submitted earlier in the term, we brainstormed some ideas for what features would and would not work on our site. The students were huge fans of Historypin, universally acclaimed for both content and interface. So we quickly agreed that the site should have a strong geospatial component. We also agreed that the site should have a focus on accessibility for use in classrooms and by researchers as well as the general public. Reading about History Harvest,, and other crowdsourced community heritage projects instilled a desire to reach out to and collaborate with local educators. Settling on a feasible research methodology was an ongoing process. Although initially focused on runaway slaves, I gently encouraged a broader context. Thus the final site presents ads for runaway children, servants, slaves, soldiers, wives, and prisoners and ties these previously disparate stories into a larger framework. Finally, a student who had some experience with web design helped us to map a work plan for the project based on the Web Style Guide by Patrick Lynch and Sarah Horton.

Since there were students from at least half a dozen different majors, with vastly different interests and skill sets, we needed a way to level the playing field, and specialized work groups seemed like a good way to do this. We sketched out the groups together in class and came up with four: Content, CMS, Outreach, and Accessibility. The Content Team researched the historiography on the topic and wrote most of the prose content, including the transcriptions of the advertisements. They used Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database to mine for content and collated the resulting data using shared Google Docs. The CMS Team, composed mostly of computer science majors, focused on building the framework and visual feel for the site. Theoretically they could have chosen any content management system, although I pushed for Omeka and Neatline as probably the best platforms for what we needed to do. The Outreach Team created a twitter feed and a video documentary and solicited input about the site from a wide range of scholars and other professionals. The Accessibility Officer did extensive research and testing to make sure the site was fully compliant with open web standards and licenses.

The group structure had benefits and drawbacks. I tried to keep the system as flexible as possible. I insisted that major decisions be made by consensus and that group members post periodic updates to the class blog so that we could track our progress. Some students really liked it and floated around between different groups, helping out as necessary. I also received criticism on my evaluations from students who felt boxed in and complained that there was too much chaos and not enough communication between the groups. So I will probably rethink this approach in the future. One evaluator suggested that I ditch the collaborative project altogether and ask each student to create their own separate site, but that seems even more chaotic. In my experience, there are always students who want less group work and students who want more, and it is an ongoing struggle to find the right balance for a given class.

The assignment to design and publish an original historical site in a short amount of time, with no budget, almost no outside support, and only a general sense of what needs to be done is essentially a smaller, limited form of crowdsourcing. More accurately, it is a form of rapid development, in which the transition between design and production is extremely fast and highly mutable. Rapid development has been a mainstay of the technology industry for a while now. In my class, I cited the example of One Week | One Tool, in which a small group of really smart people get together and produce an original digital humanities tool. If they could do that over the course of a single week, I asked, what could an entire class of really smart people accomplish in a month?

The result,, is not anything fancy, but it is an interesting proof of concept. Because of the hit-or-miss nature of OCR on very old, poorly microfilmed newspapers, we could not get a scientific sample of advertisements. Figuring out how to properly select, categorize, format, and transcribe the data was no mean feat – although these are exactly the kinds of problems that scholarly history projects must confront on a daily basis. The Outreach Team communicated with the Readex Corporation throughout the project, and their representatives were impressively responsive and supportive of our use of their newspaper database. When the students asked Readex for access to their internal API so that we could automate our collection of advertisements, they politely declined. Eventually, I realized that there were literally thousands of ads, only a fraction of which are easily identified with search terms. So our selection of ads was impressionistic, with some emphasis on chronological breadth and on ads that were especially compelling to us.

upside downDespite the students’ high level of interest in, even fascination with, the content of the ads, transcribing them could be tedious work. I attempted to apply OCR to the ad images using ABBYY FineReader and even digitized some newspaper microfilm reels to create high resolution copies, but the combination of eighteenth-century script and ancient, blurry microfilm rendered OCR essentially useless. Ads printed upside down, faded ink, and text disappearing into the gutters between pages were only a few of the problems with automatic recognition. At some point toward the end, I realized that my Mac has a pretty badass speech-to-text utility built into the OS. So I turned it on, selected the UK English vocabulary for the colonial period ads, and plugged in an old Rock Band mic (which doubles as an external USB microphone). Reading these ads, which are almost universally offensive, aloud in my room was a surreal experience. It was like reading out portions of Mein Kampf or Crania Americana, and it added a new materiality and gravity to the text. I briefly considered adding an audio component to the site, but after thinking about it for a while, in the cold light of day, I decided that it would be too creepy. One of my students pointed out that a popular educational site on runaway slaves is accompanied by the sounds of dogs barking and panicked splashing through rivers. And issues like these prompted discussion about what forms of public presentation would be appropriate for our project.

I purposely absented myself from the site design because I wanted the students to direct the project and gain the experience for themselves. On the other hand, if I had inserted myself more aggressively, things might have moved along at a faster pace. Ideas such as building a comprehensive data set, or sophisticated topic modelling, or inviting the public to participate in transcribing and commenting upon the documents, had to be tabled for want of time. Although we collected some historical maps of Connecticut and used them to a limited extent, we did not have the opportunity to georeference and import them into Neatline. This was one of my highest hopes for the project, and I may still attempt to do it at some point in the future. I did return to the site recently to add a rudimentary timeline to our exhibit. Geocoding took only minutes using an API and some high school geometry, so I assumed the timeline would be just as quick. Boy, was I wrong. To accomplish what I needed, I had to learn some MySQL tricks and hack the underlying database. I also had to make significant alterations to our site theme to get everything to display correctly.

One of the biggest challenges we faced as a class was securing a viable workspace for the project. Technology Services wanted us to use their institutional Omeka site, with little or no ability to customize anything, and balked at the notion of giving students shell access to their own server space. Instead, they directed us to Amazon Web Services, which was a fine compromise, but caused delays getting our system in place and will create preservation issues in the future. As it is now, the site will expire in less than a year, and when I asked, there was little interest in continuing to pay for the domain. I was told saving the site would be contingent on whether or not it is used in other classes and whether it “receives decent traffic.” (Believe it or not, that’s a direct quote.) One wonders how much traffic most student projects receive and what relationship that should bear to their institutional support.

Although not a finely polished gem, demonstrates something of the potential of rapid development for digital history projects. As of right now, the site includes almost 600 unique ads covering over half a century of local history. At the very least, it has established a framework for future experimentation with runaway ads and other related content. Several of the students told me they were thrilled to submit a final project that would endure and be useful to the broader world, rather than a hastily-written term paper that will sit in a filing cabinet, read only by a censorious professor. Given all that we accomplished in such a short time span, I can only guess what could be done with a higher level of support, such as that provided by the NEH or similar institutions. My imagination is running away with the possibilities.

Cross-posted at HASTAC

History Leaks

I am involved in a new project called History Leaks. The purpose of the site is to publish historically significant public domain documents and commentaries that are not available elsewhere on the open web. The basic idea is that historians and others often digitize vast amounts of information that remains locked away in their personal files. Sharing just a small portion of this information helps to increase access and draw attention to otherwise unknown or underappreciated material. It also supports the critically important work of archives and repositories at a time when these institutions face arbitrary cutbacks and other challenges to their democratic mission.

I hope that you will take a moment to explore the site and that you will check back often as it takes shape, grows, and develops. Spread the word to friends and colleagues. Contributions are warmly welcomed and encouraged. Any feedback, suggestions, or advice would also be of value. A more detailed statement of purpose is available here.