J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Problem with Elihu Yale's Potrait

The Hartford Courant has reported that Yale University will remove a portrait of early benefactor Elihu Yale (1649-1721) from a meeting room because it “shows the wealthy merchant being waited on by a black man with a silver collar around his neck—an unmistakable symbol of bondage.” The college will hang another of its many portraits of Mr. Yale instead. (It seems there isn’t a big market for them outside New Haven.)

The problematic portrait isn’t on public view, nor can I find it on Yale’s website. (ADDENDUM: Until the alumni magazine reported on this move, that is; the image on the left comes from that magazine’s site.) The painting hung in an administrative building, in the room used by the board of trustees for their occasional meetings. Apparently undergraduate Tom Frampton took a photograph of the painting after slipping away from a press conference a couple of years ago.

(Frampton also slipped into the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York and was arrested by the Secret Service as he yelled at Vice President Dick Cheney. As happened with well over 90% of other protesters arrested during that convention, prosecutors later dropped all charges against Frampton.)

Frampton’s photo has circulated as Yale and other old Ivy League colleges discuss how to address their historical links to slavery in America. Several of Yale’s residential colleges (its fancy word for dorms) are named for men who either held slaves or made pro-slavery arguments in the early republic. Brown University issued a lengthy report on slavery in its history in October 2006. Many other institutions founded in the colonial period, especially by or for the wealthiest men in American society, have connections to slavery—as the Hartford Courant (published since 1764) even reported about itself.

Ironically, there’s no evidence that Elihu Yale ever owned African slaves or participated in that trade. He was born in Boston, but left at the age of four and never returned to North America. So why did someone paint an enslaved man into this portrait? I think the answer lies far away—on a different continent.

Mr. Yale spent most of his career in India, serving as governor of the British East India Company’s outpost at Fort St. George in Madras (Chennai) from 1687 to 1694. That was his most prominent public post. It would make sense, therefore, for a formal portrait of the man to allude to that work. The window behind him shows ships in a harbor, a reference to trading. A better reproduction might show whether that port is Indian.

I wonder if the kneeling figure in Mr. Yale’s portrait was meant to represent not an enslaved African but a subservient Indian—perhaps enslaved, perhaps not. I don’t know enough about Indian society at that time to guess at his level of freedom. The unknown artist may have intended that man as a symbol of Mr. Yale’s wealth, or as a symbol of a conquered region, but almost certainly not as an individual.

The portraitist may not have known or cared how to distinguish an Indian from an African, but the kneeling man wears a long banyan-like robe rather than European-style livery, as in portraits of American slaveholders. I suspect we North Americans might be assuming too quickly that that man represents the form of subservience we’re most familiar with.

As for the what to do with the portrait, I think the real problem was how it was hidden away to all but Yale’s governing body and some staff. As with the university’s Calhoun College (named for the ante-bellum Senate’s major defender of slavery) and other old names and artifacts, it seems wiser to display it as a reminder to students of how easily otherwise charitable people accepted an exploitative system when it benefited them.


Anonymous said...

The portrait is amazing--I have not seen one so blatantly linked to the institution of slavery and its horrors like that one....

J. L. Bell said...

But Mr. Yale sent the little college in Connecticut some cloth to sell, so it was renamed after him!