The capture and transport of Africans to work in the “new world” of the Americas as slaves is a tragic story of exploitation. Yet amidst tragedy, there are opportunities for heroism. One Christian hero in the sordid story of black slavery is St. Peter Claver. Born in Catalonia, Spain, he joined the Jesuits in 1605 in Barcelona, and came to work in the missions in 1610, landing in Cartagena, Colombia, the center of the slave trade in the new world. Appalled at the dehumanization of the whole dirty business of slave trading, he took a new vow in addition to those he made in his religious profession–until his death, he was to be advocate and servant of those sons and daughters of God whom others regarded as little more than advanced animals. He insisted that Black slaves were truly equal in worth and dignity to the Europeans and baptized and instructed over 300,000 of them before he died in 1654. During his lifetime, he was regarded as dangerous by many and even sacrilegious by others, who thought he profaned the sacraments by administering them to beasts. Nevertheless, his memory was honored and he was finally canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1888. What follows is an excerpt from one of his letters.
Yesterday, May 30, 1627, on the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, numerous blacks, brought from the rivers of Africa, disembarked from a large ship. Carrying two baskets of oranges, lemons, sweet biscuits, and I know not what else, we hurried toward them. When we approached their quarters, we thought we were entering another Guinea. We had to force our way through the crowd until we reached the sick. Large numbers of the sick were lying on wet ground or rather in puddles of mud. To prevent excessive dampness, someone had thought of building up a mound with a mixture of tiles and broken pieces of bricks. This, then, was their couch, a very uncomfortable one not only for that reason, but especially because they were naked, without any clothing to protect them.
We lad aside our cloaks, therefore, and brought from a warehouse whatever was handy to build a platform. In that way we covered a space to which we at last transferred the sick, by forcing a passage through bands of slaves. Then we divided the sick into two groups: one group my companion approached with an interpreter, while I addressed the other group. There were two blacks, nearer death than life, already cold, whose pulse could scarcely be detected. With the help of a tile we pulled some live coals together and placed them in the middle near the dying men. Into this fire we tossed aromatics. Of these we had two wallets full, and we used them all up on this occasion. Then, using our own cloaks, for they had nothing of this sort, and to ask the owners for others would have been a waste of words, we provided for them a smoke treatment, by which they seemed to recover their warmth and the breath of life. The joy in their eyes as they looked at us was something to see.
This was how we spoke to them, not with words but with our hands and our actions. And in fact, convinced as they were that they had been brought here to be eaten, any other language would have proved utterly useless. Then we sat, or rather knelt, beside them and bathed their faces and bodies with wine. We made every effort to encourage them with friendly gestures and displayed in their presence the emotions which somehow naturally tend to hearten the sick.
After this we began an elementary instruction about baptism, that is, the wonderful effects of the sacrament on body and soul. When by their answers to our questions they showed that they had sufficiently understood this, we went on to a more extensive instruction, namely, about the one God, who rewards and punishes each one according to his merit, and the rest. We asked them to make an act of contrition and to manifest their detestation of their sins. Finally, when they appeared sufficiently prepared, we declared to them the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Passion. Showing them Christ fastened to the cross, as he is depicted on the baptismal font on which streams of blood flow down from his wounds, we led them in reciting an act of contrition in their own language.
This excerpt from a letter of St. Peter Claver is used in the Roman Office of Readings for his feast day on September 9.
Banner/featured image Portrait of Saint Peter Claver in the museum Palace of Inqusition in Cartagena, Colombia by an unknown artist. Photo by Mill 1. CC 4.0.