April 11, 2023
Madras as a British outpost came into being in 1636, when an East India Company official, Francis Day, signed a treaty with the region’s Nayaka ruler, leader of the then declining Vijayanagara Empire. He acquired three square kilometers of land overlooking the Bay of Bengal, bounded by the Adyar River in the South and the Buckingham Canal in the South. This was an interesting choice for a trading post because it had no existing port. Traders had to use small boats to move shipments from larger ships to land. But the East India Company official was so in love with a Tamil mistress that he picked the location so he could visit her frequently.
This was also the port where, during his roughly 30-year stay at Fort St. George, East India Company official Elihu Yale would amass much of his fortune. His tombstone would read: “Born in America, in Europe bred, in Africa travell’d, and in Asia wed, Where long he lov’d and thriv’d…much good, some ill he did.” His legacy would include building up the city now known as Chennai, enriching Britain and himself, but also making a significant donation that would lead to one of the most prestigious schools in the world: Yale University.
As American colleges grapple with their history and whether they owe reparations, Yale University has rarely acknowledged the source of its initial wealth, namely the British colonization of India, or whether it owes anything to South Asia today. But should it?