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date: 14 October 2019

Yale, Elihufree

(05 April 1649–08 July 1721)
  • Thomas W. Jodziewicz

Yale, Elihu (05 April 1649–08 July 1721), governor of Fort St. George (Madras) for the East India Company and benefactor-namesake of Yale College, governor of Fort St. George (Madras) for the East India Company and benefactor-namesake of Yale College, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of David Yale, a merchant, and Ursula Lloyd. His father’s mother, Anne Lloyd Yale, widow of Thomas Yale of Wrexham, Denbighshire, Wales, and stepfather, Theophilus Eaton, a merchant and founder of New Haven colony (1638), had moved to New England in 1637. David Yale moved from New Haven to Boston in 1641, was a signer of Child’s Remonstrance and Petition (1646), a plea for greater toleration of and rights for non-Puritans, for which he was fined £30, and returned to England in 1651, followed the next year by his wife, and his sons, David and Elihu. In the fall of 1662, Elihu briefly attended William Dugard’s private grammar school in London. Appointed a “writer” or clerk in the East India Company in 1670 with a yearly salary of £10, Yale was soon posted to Fort St. George in Madras (1672).

During the next fifteen years, Yale advanced in the company’s service while developing his own personal trading interests, particularly in precious stones such as diamonds. His business ventures were aided by the inheritance of Catherine Elford, widow of councilor Joseph Hynmers, whom Yale married in 1680. By 1681, he was appointed to the governor’s council as mintmaster, the fifth-ranking position on the council. Later in the same year he completed a successful mission to Maratha country to establish a trading post during which he kept a detailed journal (India Office, London). In 1682 he became collector of customs (fourth position on the council), the next year warehousekeeper (third), and in 1684, bookkeeper (second). For a time in 1684–1685, while Governor William Gyfford made a tour of other East India Company factories, Yale served as acting governor, and was enthusiastic and efficient both in his promotion of trade and in the execution of justice in Fort St. George. On 23 July 1687, Yale became president and governor of this English trading outpost.

During his first year as governor, Yale dealt successfully with a famine and with the conquests of the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, who had captured Golconda, a nearby kingdom, and proceeded to menace English allies in the Gingee country and to threaten Madras, a situation complicated further by rival Dutch and French involvement in the area. Yale formally acknowledged Aurangzeb’s authority and purchased new concessions from him. By 1689, rancor was visible on the council, as a majority were disaffected by Yale’s alleged increasing arbitrariness and his private business dealings, which were characterized as taking precedence over company affairs, causing neglect of duty. In September 1690, soon after a successful defense of the Fort from a French naval attack, these charges were formally drawn up by the council against Yale, adding to the previous allegations new charges against his brother Thomas, a merchant involved in company trade with China. Most of these and subsequent charges of a similar nature against Governor Yale were never proven. Like other company officials, Yale had in fact parlayed his initial annual salary (£10) into a personal fortune, an admitted sum in 1691 of 500,000 pagodas (c. £175,000). His efforts and expenditures on behalf of the East India Company seem in fact to have been mostly honorable and necessary if not always appreciated by distant London officials interested only in profit. His biographer claims that the death of his only legitimate son, David, in 1687, and the departure of his wife and three daughters for England in early 1689, affected him very badly: he became thereafter “domineering, opinionated, aggressive and unable to hold the confidence or the respect of the other members of the Council” (Bingham, p. 273). After he was replaced as governor in late 1692, and imprisoned at Fort St. George, an investigation and subsequent trial resulted in total fines for misuse of company money and repayments to the company of 10,032 pagodas. By early 1695, Thomas Yale had appeared on his brother’s behalf before the English Privy Council, which consequently directed that Elihu be allowed to return to England to confront all company charges against him. He did not immediately return to England; instead, by 1696 he was allowed once again to trade for several years.

In August 1699, Yale arrived back in England, settling in London while maintaining the old family estate, “Plas-Grono,” in Denbighshire, near Wrexham, in Wales. Active as an art collector, diamond merchant, and philanthropist, he eventually caught the attention of Jeremiah Dummer, colonial agent for Massachusetts, and soon for Connecticut, who suggested in a 1711 response to the Reverend James Pierpont, a New Haven minister, the possibility of the heirless Yale’s patronage of the ten-year-old Collegiate School. In the spring of 1713, Yale was one of a group of 181 book donors brought together by Dummer, who contributed over 800 volumes to the struggling Connecticut college, adding his own approximately forty volumes to those offered by such as Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Richard Steele, and Sir Edmund Andros. Despite his own High Church Anglicanism, and active membership in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, Yale continued to be interested in the dissenters’ Connecticut school. He responded to a January 1718 letter on its behalf from Cotton Mather of Boston, and to the ongoing efforts of Dummer and former colonial governor, Francis Nicholson, by forwarding several trunks of textile goods to Boston to be sold for the college’s benefit. The total value of Yale’s gifts, including some four hundred books, eventually amounted to over £800; the largest contribution to the college in its first century, Yale’s support came at a particularly difficult moment for the school. In response, the trustees followed up on Mather’s suggestion to Yale that the school might be named after him: “and your munificence might easily obtain for you such a commemoration and perpetuation of your valuable name, as would indeed be much better than an Egyptian pyramid” (Warch, p. 85). They did so in September 1718, saying, “We the Trustees in the Large & Splendid Hall of our Building, Have done our School the Honour of naming it with your Illustrious Name & have called it Yale-Colledge” (Bingham, pp. 329–30). Yale, however, died in London before he could make any further contributions to the school.

While he was an able if controversial servant of an East India Company, which was one of the vanguards of the first British Empire, Elihu Yale’s principal claims to fame in American history are his benefactions to a college in another English colonial outpost in which he probably never set foot. His gifts did encourage the college enterprise in Connecticut at a sensitive moment, however, allowing it to remain in New Haven, and they did suggest that imperial resources such as Yale’s could be lent to purposes useful to the American colonists. Yale indicated as much in his own epitaph (Bingham, p. 337):

Born in America, in Europe bred,In Afric travell’d, and in Asia wed,Where long he liv’d, and thriv’d; at London dead.Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all’s even,And that his soul, through mercy’s gone to heaven.You that survive, and read, take careFor this most certain exit to prepare:For only the actions of the justSmell sweet and blossom in the dust.


The principal source for Elihu Yale is Hiram Bingham’s Elihu Yale: the American Nabob of Queen Square (1939). Of particular note is his bibliography, which documents extensive Yale primary source materials available in British depositories as well as numerous works concerning the East India Company during Yale’s employment. Bernard S. Cohn, The Development and Impact of British Administration in India (1961), is a more up-to-date bibliographic essay on the subject. Bingham also has a brief chapter on Yale in Charles Edward Perry, ed., Founders and Leaders of Connecticut, 1633–1783 (1934). An older, but useful discussion of “Governor Elihu Yale” by Franklin B. Dexter appears in the Papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, vol. 3 (1882). Very helpful regarding Yale’s assistance to Connecticut higher education is Richard Warch, School of the Prophets: Yale College, 1701–1740 (1973).