From the Editor

Elihu Yale, nabob

A new book details the life—and collections—of the university's namesake.

Kathrin Lassila ’81 is editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector, and Patron, by Diana Scarisbrick and Benjamin Zucker ’62, is a book full of eye-popping lists. At the time of his death in 1721, Yale had several hundred snuff boxes, variously crafted of “gold, silver, tortoiseshell, ivory, horn, wood, amber, cornelian, agate”; one was covered in diamonds and one set with rubies. He had some 500 rings, more than 100 canes, 54 stoppers used to press tobacco into the bowl of a pipe, and more than 7,000 paintings. He had extensive collections of firearms, luxury furniture, ceramics, silver, scientific instruments, and musical instruments, as well as “so many clocks and watches that he could hardly have used them all.” He had 116 pairs of buttons and studs for his calico shirts alone.

Yale the collector and connoisseur is the main subject of this unusual book (due out in early May from Thames and Hudson). Scarisbrick and Zucker both specialize in gems and jewelry, Scarisbrick as a historian and Zucker as a writer and dealer, and for the bulk of the book they draw on catalogues of the auctions held after Yale’s death, using them to describe the belongings and tastes of a man who loved to acquire the finest. Yale, they explain, was one of the “nabobs”: Englishmen who had made fortunes in India—in Yale’s case, through trading in precious stones—“which they displayed ostentatiously on their return home.”

Scarisbrick and Zucker also review Yale’s life, based on the biography by Hiram Bingham III, Class of 1898. Yale was born in Boston in 1649, but his family moved to London in 1652. After working in his father’s counting house, in 1671 Yale joined the East India Company, and the next year was sent to Fort St. George in Madras, India, as a junior clerical officer. He was an efficient and meticulous businesssman, and rose quickly: in 1687 he took the top post in Madras, as the company’s governor. He returned to London in 1699.

Yale was a complicated person. His wife, Catherine, left him in 1688, for unknown reasons; he maintained her in one of his six houses, but crossed out the name of “my wicked wife” in his will. As governor he had performed his diplomatic and ceremonial duties with grace and pomp, but once in London he seems to have retired from social life. “He has greatly modified his ways and lives in a secluded manner,” a friend wrote. One of his largest collections was that of his books, 2,000 of them, on law, history, medicine, geography and, especially, Latin literature and Christian theology and history. Yale was deeply religious, as his choice of charities and many of his letters show. Perhaps as a consequence, one commodity he did not collect was people; the authors write that he never owned slaves, and as governor “prohibited the trafficking of slaves in Madras.”

The gift that has preserved Yale’s name in New Haven came about after Jeremy Dummer, London agent for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote in 1711 to a trustee of the Collegiate School in New Haven and urged him to ask Yale for a gift. In 1713, Yale gave 32 books. In 1718, after a letter from the well-known Rev. Cotton Mather, he sent two trunks of Indian textiles for the college to sell, 417 books, a portrait of George I, and an escutcheon with the royal arms. He sent more textiles in 1721, shortly before he died. Although Yale didn’t fulfill all his promises—partly because his heirs contested a bequest of 500 pounds—what he did give was enough. His would remain the largest gift from an individual until 1837. Mather had written him that the name of Yale College “would be better than a name of sons and daughters… better than an Egyptian pyramid.”

The comment period has expired.