Friend of the Slaves

Saint Peter Claver

Feast Day: 9th September

In the early 17th century the Spanish Empire was at the height of its powers. Colonies had been established throughout South America, and Spain was enjoying the huge wealth being generated by the plantations and the gold and silver mines. The hard manual work was done by black slaves who were imported from Africa, and such was the demand for labourers that the slave trade became very lucrative.

There were many Spaniards who were unhappy with this inhumane situation. Among them was Peter Claver, a Jesuit who spent his life ministering to the slaves. He was born in Spain in 1581, attended the University of Barcelona and joined the Jesuits at the age of 20. At his own request he was attached to a Jesuit mission to South America, and in 1610 he and his companions arrived in Colombia. Peter was ordained in 1615 in one of the main centres of the slave trade. Thousands of Africans arrived every year, travelling in conditions so filthy and cramped that up to one-third of them would die on the journey.

Fr. Peter Claver was, by all accounts, a shy man but he immediately started to organise relief work. Whenever a ship disembarked in the port, the slaves were herded into sheds and chained up like animals. He would visit them taking medicines, food, brandy or tobacco. He used to say, "We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips.” With the help of interpreters he began to communicate with the slaves, trying to give them a sense of dignity and self-respect and assuring them of God's love for them. He is said to have instructed and baptised around 300,000 people.

Peter also toured the plantations, preaching to the slaves, giving them the Sacraments, and taking care of those who were sick. He would treat diseases which no-one else would handle, and many of his cures were regarded as miraculous. He was unpopular with the plantation owners, who felt that he was wasting the slaves' working time. Wealthy members of society criticised him for giving so much attention to outcasts.

Peter found time to preach publicly in the city, to minister to the many seamen who visited the port and attend to the needs of the patients in the local hospitals. In 1650 an epidemic struck the coastal area end Peter himself became ill. He was confined to the Jesuit mission for the remainder of his life, no longer well enough to say Mass but still hearing confessions. For four years he was almost forgotten. In 1654 Fr. Diego Farina arrived with a commission from the Spanish king to work among the black slaves. Peter was overjoyed. He knew he had not much longer to live and he was happy to know that his work would be continued. When it became known that Peter was dying, local people came to kiss his hands and to strip his cell of anything which could be used as a relic. He died on 8 September 1654, aged 73, and the city magistrates, who had frowned on his activities, insisted that he be buried with great honour.

Peter Claver was a man of great compassion. He saw the slaves trapped in their misfortune and helped them spiritually and materially. Through the media we have knowledge of many natural disasters and cruelties in today's world and we can become very blasé about suffering. Have we grown so used to seeing the struggles of people to survive that they no longer have much impact on us? Today we could ask Saint Peter Claver to keep us compassionate, and to help particularly the charities for the homeless, drug addicts and AIDS victims.