Tag Archives: Yale University

On Being Quoted by the Simpsons

I will always have a soft spot for The Simpsons. Although I no longer watch the show religiously, it was an important part of my childhood, and I paid homage to it one of my first academic journal articles. During its heyday in the mid-90s (when I had to sneak around my parents’ prohibition in order to watch it), the show developed a reputation for unusually intelligent, iconoclastic humor. It was a smart, politically-conscious show, with smart, politically-conscious writers. The Simpsons seems to employ more Harvard graduates than McKinsey & Company – the writer’s room is essentially a jobs program for the Harvard Lampoon. Naturally, therefore, its central villain, the inimitable C. Montgomery Burns, is a Yale man (class of 1914). With his absurd anachronisms and ruthless, mustache-twirling embodiment of corporate capitalism, Burns is easily one my favorite characters. So when I heard that the show put out an episode about his return to campus, I could not resist.

A clip from The Simpsons episode “Caper Chase,” season 28, episode 19.

To my surprise, the episode makes direct reference to an essay I published two years ago, establishing that Elihu Yale was a slave trader. The piece, which I wrote in a few hours in response to a conference, probably receives more attention than all of my more traditional scholarship combined. During the debate over the renaming of Calhoun College, it appeared on reddit and the Wall Street Journal, made its way onto Wikipedia, and was tweeted out by historian colleagues and celebrities such as Ann Coulter (which, I will admit, made me throw up a little in my mouth). In the episode, it forms part of a larger joke about liberalism gone mad at Yale. On a tour of campus, Burns encounters teachers who were fired for celebrating Columbus Day, students who call him “worse than Hitler,” and signs that read: “Shakespeare is murder” and “Eli Yale was a profiteering slave trader.” Aghast, he wonders aloud if Yale is “still a coven of capitalism, where evil money can acquire a patina of virtue” – and he gets in a good crack about “ruthless media disruptor Samuel F. B. Morse.”

When Burns attempts to endow a Department of Nuclear Plant Management, he is thwarted by students, who are described as “highly-entitled wusses.” Instead, school administrators point out that they “need to hire more deans to decide which Halloween costumes are appropriate.” The latter refers to an actual incident sparked by a memo about racist/offensive Halloween costumes, which made national news. Although the episode does not mention the recent rebirth of Calhoun College as Hopper College, the subtext is clear. This is neither the time nor the place to rehash those debates. (You can read my thoughts on Grace Hopper here.) But the implication that students seeking redress for social injustice are “wusses” left me feeling deeply uneasy.

Students on campuses across the country face unprecedented economic pressures, shameful levels of sexual assault, and administrators eager to capitalize on “diversity” while doing very little to support underprivileged students. These same students have every right to demand a space free from racism or discrimination, and those of us on faculty and staff have a moral obligation to stand with them. By ridiculing and dismissing student protestors, the writers of The Simpsons are doing exactly the opposite. Instead of using their position of tremendous privilege and authority to question the status quo, they use it to attack a vulnerable population. Instead of speaking truth to power, as in some of the show’s greatest episodes, they seek to undermine the relatively powerless. Of course, no group or idea should be exempt from parody. The ability to laugh at oneself demonstrates humility, strength, and self-awareness. And to be fair, the episode attempts a muddled critique of Trump University and the for-profit education industry. Yet the whole tone of the campus visit feels hackneyed and mean-spirited rather than fresh or funny. The writers’ clear desire to be the next William F. Buckley results in a ham-fisted diatribe that stands at odds with the show’s subversive tradition. (PCU did a better job with similar material over twenty years ago. David Spade’s tirade at the film’s end about “whiny crybaby minorities” shows that not much has changed.)

I understand the argument of some pundits who think that student protests about costumes and memorials are misguided or absurd. With the Trump administration rolling back protections for disadvantaged groups and the environment at a blistering pace, fussing over the names of buildings seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But justice comes in all forms, and our colleges and universities should embody the change that we want to see in the world. As Craig Wilder argued recently: “Campuses are not museums for the emotional and psychological bigotries of the alumni.” Reckoning with that truth is an important victory and will set the stage for other victories in the future. That Elihu Yale or Mr. Burns would no longer feel at home on campus is a good thing. Although it can be a long and arduous process, successful student movements prove that evil money can indeed become virtuous.

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).