Yale’s Chennai Connect

From trader to the Governor and then an inadvertent founder of a future Ivy League college, the story of a man named Elihu Yale makes for a curious case of globalisation way before that word was (re)defined!

Yale indulged in questionable trade practices and amassed a fine fortune.

Yale, a Boston-born merchant arrived in Madras (Chennai) in 1672 and worked his way up the ranks to become the Governor of Fort St. George, then the Southern trading center for the British.

Yale is said to have amassed such a great fortune by indulging in private (hence not-so-legal) trade, that he was pulled up and packed off. He had to leave India after paying a hefty fine.

Elihu Yale, President of Fort St. George, Madras (1687-92)
Elihu Yale, President of Fort St. George, Madras (1687-92)| Wikimedia Commons

On his return to England, Yale could well have faded from public memory had he not decided to make a donation to an upcoming educational institution in the new world - in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. The institution needed money for a new building. On the request from a friend, Cotton Mather, Elihu Yale chipped in by donating 400 books and 8 bales of rich Indian textiles like cotton and silk.

400 books, 8 bales of Indian textiles and some money for a college cemented Yale’s name in history

So prized were the Indian textiles that the college trustees sold them for a princely sum of 562 pounds sterling! Further donations from Elihu, took the total endowment he made to 800 pounds. As a mark of gratitude, to the institution's largest donor, the college was named after him - Yale. Today, Yale is a blue chip Ivy League University and considered one of the best in the world!

Yale University
Yale University|Wikimedia Commons

Elihu Yale has also left an important mark behind in Chennai. The flagpole of the Fort St. George in Chennai is not only the tallest, but also the oldest of its kind in India. It was installed by Elihu Yale, when he was the Governor and has an interesting story behind it. In 1687, an ‘East Indiaman’ ship called Loyal Adventure floundered off the coast of Madras in a cyclone. The 150 foot mast of the ship was saved and installed as a flagpole in Fort St. George by Yale.

The flagpole was in active use till 1994, when the old wooden flagpole became weak and had to be replaced with a metal mast.

Flagpole at Fort St. George
Flagpole at Fort St. George|Wikimedia Commons
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