Madras Miscellany History & Culture

The dark secret of Elihu Yale

Believe it or not, there are a few who want to change the name of Yale University! It was initially named Yale College after Elihu Yale, Governor of Madras (1687-1692), who had, in 1715 and 1721, gifted about £800 worth of textiles and books to what was the Collegiate School of Connecticut. Their reason: The donor had not only kept slaves in Madras but had also encouraged slave exports.

These liberals of the anti-Trump brigade cite precedent. Yale in February re-named its Calhoun College, Hopper College because John Calhoun, a Vice President of America, had been “a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately supported slavery”, according to Yale’s President who amplified, “He was fundamentally in conflict with Yale’s mission and values.” So was Yale, say the liberals pointing to Yale’s Madras record of dubiously enriching himself and supporting slavery.

Writing about the last year of Yale’s Governorship, historian HD Love says, “The use of slaves for domestic purposes in Madras had always been recognised and sales and purchases were invariably registered at the Choultry (a Government office). The iniquitous practice of stealing children for export was, of course, illegal… (In 1683 there was) absolute prohibition against the exportation of slaves of any age. In 1687 (Yale’s first year as Governor), however, the trade was sanctioned under regulation, a duty of one pagoda being exacted for each slave sent from Madras by sea.” In September that year, 665 slaves were exported, giving an idea of the trade. The next year, the export of slaves was prohibited. The Council’s policy kept chopping and changing till, in 1790, the Council “resolved that any Traffic in the sale or purchase of Slaves be prohibited by public Proclamation”.

The dark secret of Elihu Yale

Yale, whether involved in the trade or not, was, as Governor, permissive about it, it would appear. The records state he permitted 10 slaves to be sent on every ship to England. Citing Yale’s own involvement, the pro-changers refer to three paintings of Yale in the Yale Library collection showing a dark-skinned boy in them. But, the picture seen in all sources and which I found in the first authoritative biography of Yale (by Hiram Bingham) says the boy is the “page boy of the Duke of Devonshire” whose brother Yale’s daughter Anne was to marry.

As for slavery in the Madras Presidency, a 19th Century report says it was commonplace, affecting about 20 per cent of the population (the figure in 1930 was still 12 per cent!). But this slavery was what continues to this day as ‘bonded labour’. The poor borrowed from the landowners and when they could not pay back they entered into a bond to work for the lender for so many years. Laws against such practices were enacted in 1811, 1812, 1823 and 1843, when total abolition was decreed. Selling of slaves became a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code of 1862.

But to get back to the Yale issue; it’s been said that virtually every old private college in the US was endowed by men from slave-owning families.

Last ‘great white hunter’?

Joshua Mathew from Bengaluru, an IT professional and history buff, tells me that he has the rights for all the books by Kenneth Anderson, the Jim Corbett of the South, who tracked and killed man-eating leopards and tigers and then wrote about them and the southern terrain they flourished in. Anderson, of five-generation British lineage, and his wife Blossom, of Australian and Ceylon Burgher parentage, called Bangalore home. Their son Donald, whom Mathew calls “the last great white hunter-author”, is the subject of a book by Mathew awaiting publication.

Many Andersons married in St Andrew’s Kirk in Madras, says Mathew, but Kenneth Anderson’s greater connection with Madras was his friendship with Wiele the photographer. They hunted and, later, photographed in the wild together, leading Anderson to spend his post-hunting years ‘shooting’ with the camera. His pictures of the Nilgiris in the early 20th Century brought Mathew to my door after reading of Albert Penn, the photographer of the Nilgiris, in this paper.

The dark secret of Elihu Yale

Wiele, of German origin but who may have been British — I’ve found no mention of his being interned during the First World War — opened a photographic studio in Madras in the 1880s. Around 1890, Theodor Klein, also German, joined him. Their Wiele and Klein photographic studio was at 11, Mount Road, facing Round Tana (later the G Venkatapathi Naidu building). Branches in Ooty and Coonoor were added. Wiele later sold his share to Klein, moved to Bangalore and successfully ran a studio there in the early 1900s (Mathew tells me Wiele’s daughter visits Bangalore every year). In Madras, Klein hired young Michael Peyerl, another German, as assistant, then took him as partner.

Klein died during the Second World War internment. His widow Valeska inherited his share and ran the business with Peyerl till after Independence when they sold it to Indian interests and moved together to Europe. Klein and Peyerl remained a well-known name in Madras till 1987 when a fire wrote finis to it.

The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places and events from the years gone by and, sometimes, from today

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 11:48:01 AM |

Next Story