The Ivy League’s dark history shows it is not easy to reject charity that involves dirty money

A hoary past.
A hoary past.
Image: Reuters/Michelle McLoughlin
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

One of the oldest British buildings in India is St. Mary’s Church in the southern city of Chennai. Constructed between 1678 and 1680, it is perhaps the oldest Anglican Church east of Suez.

Interestingly, records of baptism, marriage, and death are preserved at the church right from the beginning. The first marriage registered here (old records are in Fort Museum) was between one Elihu Yale and Catherine Hynmers. Yale would later offer a donation to build a college named after him. It subsequently became Yale University.

In the 1680s, Elihu Yale became the first president of Fort St. George, the British East India Company’s post in Madras, as Chennai was then known. During this period, he amassed an enormous fortune, mostly through rampant illegal profiteering (which later led to his dismissal by the company).

While in India, he was also a notorious slave-trader. During his time as president, a terrible famine had struck the region where Madras was located, creating a labour surplus. Yale took advantage of the situation and purchased hundreds of slaves, shipping them off to the English colony of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean. He enforced a law that every Europe-bound vessel must carry at least 10 slaves.

Administrating the nodal centre of sea-route at the time, he orchestrated slave trade in the Indian Ocean, from Madagascar to Sumatra, and grew rich from its spoils.

It is ironic, then, for Yale University to change the name of its Calhoun College this week, only because John C. Calhoun, whom the college was named after, was a strong advocate of slaveholding rights. As if Yale’s name was well deserved!

Yale is not alone, though.

Not very university-like

Professor Craig Steven Wilder from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his much-acclaimed 2013 book, Ebony and Ivy, tells us fascinating accounts of the founding of major American universities, all rooted in the barbaric slave trade.

The colonial academy (which included Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, Rutgers and few more) not only defended slavery (preaching racial sciences) but also benefited from it. Many of their founding trustees themselves owned slaves and relied on plantation wealth from the southern states of the US where, in pre-civil war America, slavery was the norm.

Harvard, Yale, and Brown continued for a long time to be powerful institutional forces in evangelising native Americans and later were significant beneficiaries of the slave trade. This continued even after 1808 when the import of African slaves was made illegal. Many presidents of these institutions were sons or sons-in-law of merchant traders, and themselves owned slaves. Columbia, Princeton, and Yale also opposed the abolition movement. Wilder calls 18th century American academy, the third pillar of a civilisation based on bondage, along with church and the state.

One might say slavery was the order of the day and it was impossible to avoid it institutionally at the time. This defence is ill-founded. Anti-slavery voices were heard all along—think about the Quakers who severed their ties to slavery during the 18th century, and the frequent rebellions against slavery during that period. Where, if not in a university, should we expect a refuge for these ideas?  

What source, charity?

Several questions remain starkly posed, though. Does benefiting from these universities implicate us in their past deeds? Or must we celebrate the present, because quarrels with history is not only foolish, but often dangerous? To what extent does the source of capital colour the capital permanently? Does money earned from an unethical source compromise its ethical use? Must a society deny charity because the source is tainted?

In July 2015, a generous donation from British Petroleum (BP) enabled London’s Royal Opera House to stage the production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni across the UK on big screens. However, just a day before being staged, 75 top classical musicians of the country wrote an open letter requesting the Royal Opera to cut its ties with BP. In fact, a 2004-2011 study on 449 theatres in Russia (80% of the country’s total) published last year in the Academy of Management Journal shows that the likelihood for winning the prestigious Golden Mask award decreases by 10% with each additional corporate donor to that theater.

We decry corporations’ attempts to “buy” the legitimacy they don’t deserve.

But there are complexities in excavating a universal morality. It is nearly impossible to locate capital whose sources are unalloyed with some unethical activity. The vast de-territorialised machinery of capital circulation in today’s society makes it inevitably coloured with some level of unethicality.

For instance, banks create most of society’s wealth today and considerable lending is done to business houses who are never purely ethical. The remaining funds are created by the government, but even that is often a result of the nation state’s brutality against its own citizens. Further, if we see capital production through time, the node of colonial capitalism will appear in almost every chain of wealth creation everywhere in the world.

The question of context assumes importance. We may disregard BP’s sponsorship of opera houses, but can we decline a much-needed donation to government orphanages from BP? Alternatively, how many who would accept money for educating Dalit girls’ in Indian villages from a corrupt politician would be comfortable if the politician has several rape charges against him?

Discounting through time colours our judgment too—older events do not look as bad as today’s. Otherwise why would the Royal Opera not have attracted such cultural boycotts if it was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation instead, despite the Foundation’s unclean history in funding Germany’s eugenics research used by the Nazis? Or what justifies our celebration of receiving a Rhodes scholarship but disgust at the thought of any, say (hypothetically) Trump Scholarship?

A lack of scholarly contribution in this area leaves activists at a loss to make sense of many cases which seem fair on the outside but are not if one looks at the details. For as long as the general questions of context and time of philanthropic initiatives are not dealt with at a philosophical level, we won’t be able to cultivate a theory of corporate philanthropy. And without such a theory, synonymising capital and capitalist might just be a conceptual parallax.

In some way, Yale graduates must be happy that criticising corporate philanthropy is rather new. Elihu Yale gave money, although considerably more efforts for the benefit of the college were made by a colonial author, Jeremiah Dummer. However, the college trustees didn’t want to call it “Dummer College” lest the Yalies were called as Dummies!  

We welcome your comments at