Although born in Massachusetts, Yale was taken to England by his family at the age of three, and he never returned to America. He was educated at a private school in London.
In 1671 Yale began working for the East India Company and arrived the following year in Madras. From a fairly low-ranking position he worked his way up by 1687 to become governor of Fort Saint George, the East India Company’s installation at Madras. Five years later the company removed him from office, charging him with self-aggrandizement at company expense. He was kept in Madras until 1699 and forced to pay a fine, but Yale was still able to take a sizable fortune with him to England. In London he entered the diamond trade, but he devoted a good deal of his time and money to philanthropy.
Yale made his first gift (a donation of 32 books) to the institution in 1713, when it was known as the Collegiate School at Saybrook. Later, in 1718, Cotton Mather wrote to Yale, hinting broadly that the Saybrook school—which had recently moved to New Haven—could be renamed in Yale’s honour in gratitude for another sizable gift. Yale responded with a gift of more books, a portrait of George I, and a variety of textiles from the East Indies. The gifts were sold in Boston for some L800, and the money was used to construct a building called Yale College in New Haven. By its charter of 1745, the entire institution was named Yale University. Yale was buried at Wrexham in North Wales. On April 5, 1999, the university recognized the 350th anniversary of his birthday.