Colonial tombs of Elihu Yale's son and his friend in the Madras High court complex, Chennai - to be relocated


300 year old colonial toms, Madras High court complex

Though separated by roughly more than three centuries, the link between  Yale University of New Haven, CT and the Madras High Court, Chennai (Madras) can not be ignored. The strange thing is the distant link is neither political or judicial nor educational, but through two tombs of two Yale family located on high court premises. It does not come under the ambit of historical monument, in a strict sense. No heritage lovers would have ever thought that the  graves of son and friend of former first colonial Governor  or President of  Ft. St. George Elihu (in 1684 he assumed office)  would become a subject of  litigation in the Madra High court, Chennai.

The colonial  Madras High Court complex is famous, covering  vast area of 107 acres, including old Law college campus in a prime area of the city,  as it is then the second largest Judicial Structure in the world next only to the Courts in London. A beautiful structure designed earlier by J.W. Bassington and later completed in 1892 (work began in 1888) under the famous architect Henry Irwin with support from J.H. Stephens.

The purported historical link may come to the dead end as the Madras High Court ordered the custodian of heritage buildings Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to move out the graves. The modest 300-year-old structures on a two acre  plot, are blocking the proposed project of constructing  a multi-level  parking facility for motor vehicles, etc.  Further, lawyers, staff  and litigants need additional parking space  to avoid space crunch now. The graves  are near the old colonial Law College building that was designed in Indo-Saracenic style. 

Colonial toms, Madras High court.

Above image: The English company's official  Hynmers’ Obelisk in 1939, courtesy Elihu Yale, the American Nabob of Queen’s Square by Hiram Bingham, Dodd Mead & Sons, 1939....  

’The Obelisk, dating  back to the 1680s is the burial spot of Joseph Hynmers, second-in-council, Fort St. George, Died in May 1680, he was  buried here what was then  a  Guava Garden  cemetery of the British.  His widow  Catherine  married Elihu Yale the same year and in 1689, David, the couple’s son died and was buried under the obelisk next to Hynmers. Except the two, rest of the surviving tombstones were shifted to a place close to St. Mary;s church in the fort. Since 1750s the graves have been here in the same spot and witnessed the construction of one of the earliest judicial complex including  law college, etc............

Gov. ft.St. George Elihu Yale

As per heritage protection  rules under Article 49 of the constitution,  new construction is not allowed within a 100 meter radius from the 17th century tombs. This was declared a centrally protected monument in 1921 u/s 3 of the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, and later under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.

The graves contain the mortal remains of Joseph Hynmer, a senior member in the council of Fort St. George, who died in 1680 and Jacca David Yale, four year old kid, son of Gov. Elihu Yale and Hynmer's widow Catherine whom Yale married here at St. Mary's (first wedding registered here)within Fort St. George, Chennai.  Yale headed tha EIC's settlement in Madras  from 1687 to 1692.  The child's body was also buried next to Hynmer’s grave.  In the 17th century, a guava garden situated next to Fort St. George was used as a burial ground by the EIC. It later extended to the old law college campus.

Colonial toms, Madras High court

The location of the two graves near the old law college has become a subject of discussion and court case as they hinder the proposed work on parking facilities.   It the graves are not relocated the court has a proposal for multi-level car park facility on 1.83 acres of land under the Metropolitan Transport Corp. near the harbor MLA office. The land was acquired by the court years ago.

The  High Court of Madras in a recent verdict on the colonial tombs on the court complex  said  'the structure had no archaeological or aesthetic value, but was protected merely because it was 300 years old.  The court observed that ''there was nothing in the order of rejection to show that the monument satisfied the prerequisite of historical, archaeological and artistic value''....

The learned judge said, ''Merely because the British rulers had passed an order declaring the tomb as protected, it is not necessary for independent India to continue what the British regime had thought fit then.''.............. ''The authority has to first divest its slavish mindset carried on from the colonial era which alone would mark the attainment of independence by our country''. 

The onus on the ASI to take steps for relocating the tomb to any appropriate place to preserve the vestiges of early colonial rule. 

With respect to parking complex, the impact of construction will affect the old college building which is already damaged with numerous cracks. Across India the ASI regulations with respect to monuments are not being followed and often they are violated with impunity. In the case of colonial tombs in the Madras high court complex, several structures came up post independence after 1950s. The crux of the matter is the buried persons were not part of the empire's growth, except they lived in the early colonial period.


Yale's tenure in Madras and briefly at  Ft. David, Cuddalore was a controversial one and he amassed wealth dishonestly. However he became benefactor of an American college which later became a famous educational institution - Yale University, Connecticut. A few years ago Yale university's entanglement with slavery became a serious issue. The institution's senior official admitted slavery and slave trade were part of Yale. Elihu Yale was, it is said, running a clandestine slave trade in Madras. In one month in 1687, Fort St. George exported at least 665 individuals. Governor and president of the Madras settlement, Yale enforced the ten-slaves-per-vessel rule. He presided over an important node of the Indian ocean slave trade.  Historians have long pointed out that Yale (the University) is deeply implicated in the institution of slavery. Many of its prominent buildings are named after slaveholders or slavery apologists. For example The Calhoun's college (affiliated to Yale) name was changed by Yale in 2017  as its  founder Calhoun was a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a ‘positive good.