St. Peter Claver: Patron Saint of Slaves
BackgroundThe 17th century was an era of expansion. New lands across the Atlantic Ocean had been discovered two hundred years previous. Spain took to the seas in pursuit of land, gold, silver, jewels, spices, sugar and tobacco. Settling the New World brought with it the need for cheap labor. The successors of the conquistadors looked to Africa. Blacks were captured, bartered, and purchased from territories of the west coast of Africa – what is today the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and other places deeper in the continent stretching as far as the Congo.
Early lifeClaver was born in 1581 into a prosperous farming family in the Catalan village of Verdu, Urgell, located in the Province of Lleida, about 54 miles (87 km) from Barcelona. He was born 70 years after King Ferdinand of Spain set colonial slavery culture into motion by authorizing the purchase of 250 African slaves in Lisbon for his territories in New Spain, an event which was to shape Claver's life. His parents were devout Catholics.
Later, as a student at the University of Barcelona, Claver was noted for his intelligence and piety. After two years of study there, Claver wrote these words in the notebook he kept throughout his life: "I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave."
In New SpainAfter he had completed his studies, Claver entered the Society of Jesus in Tarragona at the age of 20. When he had completed the novitiate, he was sent to do his study of philosophy at Palma, Mallorca. While there, he came to know the porter of the college, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, a laybrother known for his holiness and gift of prophecy. Rodriguez felt that he had been told by God that Claver was to spend his life in service in the colonies of New Spain, and he frequently urged the young student to accept that calling.
Claver volunteered for the Spanish colonies and was sent to the New Kingdom of Granada, where he arrived in the port city of Cartagena in 1610. Required to wait six years to be ordained as a priest while he did his theological studies, he lived in Jesuit houses at Tunja and Bogotá. During those preparatory years, he was deeply disturbed by the harsh treatment and living conditions of the black slaves who were brought from Africa.
By this time, the slave trade had been established in the Americas for about a century. Local natives were considered not physically fitted to work in the gold and silver mines and this created a demand for blacks from Angola and Congo. These were bought in West Africa for four crowns a head, or bartered for goods and sold in America for an average two hundred crowns apiece. Criminals, war captives, the mentally unstable, the sick and other social misfits were bartered to the white traders by African chiefs. Others were captured at random, especially able-bodied males and females deemed suitable for labor.
Cartagena was a slave-trading hub. 10,000 slaves poured into the port yearly, crossing the Atlantic from West Africa under conditions so foul that an estimated one-third died in transit. Although the slave trade was condemned by Pope Paul III and Urban VIII had issued a papal decree prohibiting slavery,(later called "supreme villainy" by Pope Pius IX), it was a lucrative business and continued to flourish.
Claver's predecessor in his eventual lifelong mission, Father Alonso de Sandoval, S.J., was his mentor and inspiration. Sandoval devoted himself to serving the slaves for 40 years before Claver arrived to continue his work. Sandoval attempted to learn about their customs and languages; he was so successful that, when he returned to Seville, he wrote a book in 1627 about the nature, customs, rites and beliefs of the Africans. Sandoval found Claver an apt pupil. When he was solemnly professed in 1622, Claver signed his final profession document in Latin as: Petrus Claver, aethiopum semper servus (Peter Claver, servant of the Ethiopians [i.e. Africans] forever).
Ministry to the slaves
Claver had conflicts with some of his Jesuit brothers, who accepted slavery. Claver saw the slaves as fellow Christians, encouraging others to do so as well. During his 40 years of ministry he personally catechized and baptized an estimated 300,000 slaves. He would then follow up on them to ensure that as Christians they received their Christian and civil rights. His mission extended beyond caring for slaves, however. He preached in the city square, to sailors and traders and conducted country missions, returning every spring to visit those he had baptized, ensuring that they were treated humanely. During these missions, whenever possible he avoided the hospitality of planters and overseers; instead, he would lodge in the slave quarters.
Claver's work on behalf of slaves did not prevent him from ministering to the souls of well-to-do members of society, traders and visitors to Cartagena (including Muslims and English Protestants) and condemned criminals, many of whom he prepared for death; he was also a frequent visitor at the city's hospitals. Through years of unremitting toil and the force of his own unique personality, the slaves' situation slowly improved. In time he became a moral force, the Apostle of Cartagena.
In 1610, he landed at Cartagena (modern Colombia), the principle slave market of the New World, where a thousand slaves were landed every month. After his ordination in 1616, he dedicated himself by special vow to the service of the Negro slaves-a work that was to last for thirty-three years. He labored unceasingly for the salvation of the African slaves and the abolition of the Negro slave trade, and the love he lavished on them was something that transcended the natural order.
Boarding the slave ships as they entered the harbor, he would hurry to the revolting inferno of the hold, and offer whatever poor refreshments he could afford; he would care for the sick and dying, and instruct the slaves through Negro catechists before administering the Sacraments. Through his efforts three hundred thousand souls entered the Church. Furthermore, he did not lose sight of his converts when they left the ships, but followed them to the plantations to which they were sent, encouraged them to live as Christians, and prevailed on their masters to treat them humanely.
Illness, and death
In the last years of his life Peter was too ill to leave his room. He lingered for four years, largely forgotten and neglected, physically abused and starved by an ex-slave who had been hired by the Superior of the house to care for him. He never complained about his treatment, accepting it as a just punishment for his sins. He died on 8 September 1654.
When the people of the city heard of his death, they forced their way into his room, to see and pay their last respects. Such was the reputation of his holiness among the populace that they stripped away everything there to serve as a relic of a saint.
The city magistrates, who had previously considered him a nuisance for his persistent advocacy on behalf of the slaves, ordered a public funeral and he was buried with pomp and ceremony. The vast scope of Claver's ministry, which was prodigious even before considering the astronomical number of people he baptized, came to be realized only after his death.
He was canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII, along with the holy Jesuit porter, Alphonsus Rodriguez. In 1896 Pope Leo also declared Claver the patron of missionary work among all African peoples. His body is preserved and venerated in the church of the former Jesuit residence, now renamed in his honor.