Elihu and the obelisk

The obelisk on the Law College campus reminds us of Elihu Yale, after whom a famous university in the U.S. is named, and his connection with Chennai

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:07 pm IST

Published - July 22, 2014 06:16 pm IST - chennai



Years ago, flipping through registers at the over 320-year-old St. Mary's Church at Fort St. George, I jumped when I read that Elihu Yale had got married here. This is the man after whom Yale University in the U.S. is named and he had a Chennai connection! In 1680, Elihu Yale had married Catherine Hynmers, a widow, and theirs was the first wedding to be registered in this church.

Not Mr. Nice, said historian Vakula S Varadarajan. “Arrogant, ruthless braggart (his garden-house was known for his scandalous relationships), Welshman Elihu Yale was born on April 5, 1649 in Boston, joined the East India Company in 1671, became president/governor of St George Fort in 1687, but was removed from the post for indulging in private trade.” He was fined for amassing wealth, stayed in Madras till 1699, returned to England with his riches, entered the diamond business in London, and enlarged his fortune. Cotton Mather from New Haven, Connecticut, wrote to Elihu suggesting that Saybrook School in New Haven could be named after him, if he made a donation. Yale despatched books, textiles and a portrait of King George I, in1713. They were auctioned for £800. One Jeremiah Drummer's contribution exceeded Yale's, but the authorities baulked at the name “Drummer” for a school, and Yale's name was immortalised.

“Let's visit the obelisk for more,” said Varadarajan. Obélix outside an Astérix comic book? So, on a hot afternoon, we crossed a former cemetery adjacent to Law College, at the rear entrance to the Madras High Court, and stood in front of a tall, tapering monument, ending in a pyramid-like shape.

The obelisk marks the death of Joseph Hynmers, who was sworn in as acting governor of Madras in the 1670s. He died in 1680, leaving behind a wife and four children. In those ten years, Hynmers and Yale became close friends. On November 4, 1680, six months after his death, Yale married Catherine Hynmers. A son, David, was born to them in 1684. David died in 1688 and was buried next to Hynmers. Soon after, she left for England.

A couple of trees afford it a sketchy canopy, but the obelisk, with garbage on one side and custom-made college windows on the other, looks completely out-of-place. The ASI has built a low fence around it, no doubt to keep vandals from etching eternal love stories on the monument. The tapering pillar follows the classic furrowed design, with patterned rings at regular intervals to break the monotony. A cannonball-like ornament completes the top. The pillar sits in a square container-like base with cannonballs marking the four corners. The base rests on a chamber with arches at both entrances. The inner walls have the two tombstones embedded in them.

Hynmers' epitaph is in English. In stylised lettering, it essentially says, “Here lyes (lies) interred the body of Joseph Hynmers who served the Rt. Hon. East India Company [for] several years as & in Council of Fort St. George; in IVth station he departed this life on the 28th of May 1680.” Facing it is David's in Latin: Hic jacet David filius honorabilis Elihu Yale Praesidentis et Gubernatoris Castelli St. Georgii et civitatis Madrassia natus fuit 15 may 1684 et obiit 25 January, Anno 1687/8 . Below, a skeleton and an angel guard what looks like a chalice with an animal on top. At the bottom right is the face of a child.

There is more to this area than this obelisk, said Varadarajan. Between 1636 and 1640, Francis Day bought land and built a fortified warehouse — Fort St. George — for the English East India Company. A township grew outside where “natives” worked to cater to the needs of the Europeans inside. This was dubbed Black Town. When the French returned Madras to the English in 1749 in lieu of Louisberg, Canada, the English flattened part of Black Town. In 1773, they erected 13 pillars along the flattened area and banned construction in any form between pillars and fort, in order to have a clear view of possible invaders. A new Black Town came up beyond these pillars and the old Black Town gave way to the Madras High Court. A thoroughfare was formed along the stretch between the pillars and the High Court, which later became the China Bazaar Road. You can see one of these pillars near Parry's.

We look back as we leave: the obelisk will continue to remind us of the man called Elihu Yale.

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