Elihu Yale – The Great Welsh American

Elihu Yale’s life spanned a time of great changes in British History and also great achievements in the spheres of the Arts and Sciences, development in the form of government, the foundation of the British Empire and the expansion of trade and commerce.

Yale’s father was taken to America (seventeen years after the first settlers sailed in the ‘Mayflower’) by his stepfather to avoid discrimination against the Puritans during the reign of Charles I.

Elihu was born in the same year that Charles I was executed and Oliver Cromwell came to power. Rule by an absolute monarch was succeeded by rule by a dictator both apparently equally intolerant of those subscribing to any religion other than their own. The family returned to England during the Commonwealth and must have witnessed the collapse of the Commonwealth after the death of Cromwell and the triumphant return of the Stuarts in the person of Charles II.

These were exciting and dangerous times. Elihu must have been in his father’s counting house in London during the Great Plague and the Great Fire and during the wars with the Dutch when the Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames, setting fire to British warships and temporarily cutting off London from the sea. This was also the period when Charles II founded the Royal Society to encourage the Arts and Sciences. The age of Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, the poets John Milton and Dryden and many others.

While Yale was in India he will have heard of events at home; the accession of James II, the failure of the Monmouth rebellion and the bloody revenge meted out to the rebels by the notorious Judge Jeffreys, the flight of James II and the Glorious Revolution, when William of Orange and Mary were welcomed to the throne of England and James’ final defeat at the Battle of the Boyne which consolidated William’s hold over Ireland.

During this period the foundations of the British Empire were laid. The colonies in the New World were strengthened by emigration from Britain. Trading posts were established on the coast of India which would eventually lead to the inclusion of the whole of the subcontinent as a British possession.

After Yale returned from India Queen Anne came to the throne and the Duke of Marlborough won his famous victories against the French. Then in 1714 the Georgian era started with the accession of George I. This was the time when government by Parliament and Cabinet as we know it today first started with Robert Walpole the first Prime Minister in all but name. Walpole was appointed in 1721, the year of Elihu’s death.

This was also a time when trade and commerce greatly expanded and prospered. When Elihu went to India as a humble ‘writer’ the East India company was notorious for the small salaries it paid to their servants. Even the Governor was only paid £100 per year. They were no doubt expected to make money by trading with the natives on their own account. Elihu succeeded so well that after twenty seven years in India he returned home with a fortune which would today be considered suitable for a multi- millionaire. This was a period when great fortunes could be made and lost. The South Sea bubble brought misfortune to many through the greed of both unscrupulous promoters and gullible investors. It was a period of bribery and corruption; parallels can be drawn even today with several spectacular failures of finance companies. Also in this period another great institution was founded – the Bank of England. Although a private bank founded by Charter from William III it was closely associated with the Government.

Elihu Yale was one of the first to return from India with a fortune and consequently to be accused of sharp practice.

In the following years other servants of the East India Company were to be similarly treated, notably Warren Hastings and Robert Clive whose reply to his accusers is well known – ‘By God, Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation’.
Elihu Yale is one of those remarkable characters who become a legend in their own lifetime. He is now best known as the man after whom Yale University was named and who is remembered by the Epitaph (composed by himself!) on his tomb in Wrexham Churchyard. This website is a brief attempt to tell his story in terms of his epitaph in Wrexham Churchyard, North Wales, and to encourage the reader to visit the places associated with him.

Born in America, in Europe bred, In Africa travell’d and in Asia wed, Where long he liv’d and thriv’d; in London dead Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all’s even And that his soul thro’ mercy’s gone to Heaven. You that survive and read this tale, take care, For this most certain exit to prepare: Where blest in peace, the actions of the just Smell Sweet, and blossom in the silent dust.

Reproduced from the booklet ‘Elihu Yale the great Welsh American’
ISBN:- 0 9517425 0 7
Copyright © Wrexham Area Civic Society