- - Wednesday, July 2, 2014

By Diana Scarisbrick and Benjamin Zucker
Thames & Hudson, $39.95, 288 pages, illustrated

How many people would identify Yale University with far-off Wales and much further-off Madras (now Chennai) on the East coast of India? For if any American institution has deep roots in colonial Puritan New England, it is that hallowed institution recognized by almost everyone but Harvard graduates to be the acme of this nation’s academy. Perhaps I should declare my bias right away: I am a proud graduate of Yale. Like most of my fellow Yalies, I knew little of the man who gave his name to it. However, you don’t need a connection to find this book by an Oxford historian and her American co-author of interest, because, even if Yale University had never existed, Elihu Yale is a man worth remembering.

Although Elihu Yale considered himself a Welshman and divided his life between Great Britain and India, he was in fact a native of North America, born in Boston — then, of course, a British colony, in 1649:

“He was named after the biblical figure Elihu, who discussed the power and justice of God with Job . The infant’s future career was to show how much he inherited from his father: his Welsh nationalism, Protestant faith, trading background and independent spirit.”

The Britain to which he returned at age 3 with his parents proved to be racked with political upheaval: The next years would see the Cromwellian Commonwealth, the nation’s sole experiment with unmonarchical government, grow increasingly weak until the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660. His teen years saw the city of London, where he lived, ravaged by the Great Plague of 1665 and the following year’s Great Fire, which eliminated many of its houses and churches. Yale managed to attend a prestigious school there — although, interestingly and perhaps significantly, not a university — before joining the family’s counting house, or in today’s term, investment bank.

Yale’s career really took off when, in 1671, he went to work in London for the Royal Chartered East India Company, which would come to rule the whole subcontinent. A year later, he was off on the perilous six- to 12-months-long, 15,000-mile journey round the Cape of Good Hope to what was then its most important outstation, Madras, off the Bay of Bengal. There, as the authors portentously tell us, “either to make his fortune or to die of a fever.”

Well, of course, if he had rapidly died of a fever, we wouldn’t have this book, but, as it turned out, Yale prospered, not just as an official — he eventually became governor — but as a merchant or nabob, as those Englishmen who made their fortune in India were called. Not that there weren’t bumps, personal as well as professional, along the way, succinctly but elegantly recounted in these pages. However, by the time he returned to England more than a quarter-century later, the young man who had gone away earning what even then was the less than princely sum of 10 pounds per annum, returned wealthy, with five tons of valuable cargo in tow. While in Madras, he had become a considerable gemologist, with a specialty in diamonds, most of which came from India in those days before the discovery of sources first in Brazil and much later in South Africa.

For the next two decades, until his death in 1721, Yale established himself as a considerable man of property, with country estates and houses all over London. Much of his time was given over to trading in diamonds, a huge stock of which he had brought home with him and which his contacts back in Madras continued to supply. This book provides a vivid account of the diamond trade in all its aspects and demonstrates its subject’s prodigious, manifold skills. In addition to increasing his fortune and amassing a grand collection of jewels and objets d’art, this gentleman about town also found time to engage himself in the vibrant intellectual life of the time. He was even elected a fellow of the recently formed scientific organization, the Royal Society, today still the nation’s most prestigious.

Yale’s gift turned out to be much less than those, like Cotton Mather, who had named the school for him, expected; in fact, half of what had been promised — little more than two trunks of Indian textiles, 417 books for the library and a portrait of King George I. The 500 pounds he left for it in his will was successfully contested by his heirs and never benefited Yale College. Still, as the authors write, “his support, the largest gift from an individual donor until 1837, came at the right time. It gave the trustees the confidence to proceed with establishing what would become a world-famous university Mather was right to compare it to a pyramid.”

However, as a hard-headed businessman, Elihu Yale might be most proud of just how much he ended up getting for that modest gift. He always liked a bargain, and this was surely his greatest.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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