Remembering the Slave of the Slaves

St. Peter Claver’s ministry to black slaves is plainly remarkable and perhaps unparalleled among anyone in the history of the Catholic Church and perhaps Christianity as a whole.

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“No life, except the life of Christ, has so moved me as that of St. Peter Claver.”

So said Pope Leo XIII. And I find it hard to disagree.

That’s not an easy statement to make for those of us who have studied the lives of the saints. My favorites include Padre Pio, Catherine of Siena, Faustina, Gemma Galgani, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Mother Teresa, and Pope John Paul II. Those are some rather extraordinary folks. I wrote a couple of books on John Paul II, including a very lengthy one. It was he more than anyone else who brought me into the Catholic Church in April 2005, the month of his death.

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But when recently doing a book on the Catholic Church and slavery (released this past summer by Emmaus Road Publishing and inspired by a July 2020 piece that I did for Crisis), I studied closely the life of St. Peter Claver, a figure not ignored by this publication. Excellent pieces on Claver have been published at Crisis by Joseph F.X. Sladky and Fr. John A. Perricone. And I must say, it is hard to find any figure, other than Christ Himself, who has so moved me. In fact, we put Claver on the cover of the book. No other individual so loved and ministered to slaves—so much so that Claver called himself the “slave of the slaves.”

Pedro “Peter” Claver was born on June 26, 1580, in the Catalonian village of Verdú, about 89 kilometers west of Barcelona, Spain. He eventually arrived, in 1611, at Cartagena de Indias—in what was then called New Granada—located at the northwest tip of South America. Claver was ordained there in 1616. He was heavily influenced by another unappreciated great Catholic abolitionist, Fr. Alonso de Sandoval, who had an apostolate to black slaves.

Claver’s subsequent ministry to black slaves is plainly remarkable and perhaps unparalleled among anyone in the history of the Catholic Church and perhaps Christianity as a whole. I include greats like William Wilberforce in that assessment. At a personal, hands-on level, no one literally touched these poor souls like Claver did. Fr. Perricone notes that to St. Peter Claver “black lives really mattered.” He was a “true champion of the black people.”

Peter Claver truly loved these people. He showed that love in a way that astonished everyone, slaves and non-slaves alike. He expressed it in a way that was truly saintly. 

At the beginning of the 17th century, Cartagena was a primary slave market in the Caribbean, one of two slave ports in Spanish America designated by the Council of the Indies. African slaves were shipped into Cartagena and from there disseminated into the Americas. It was the height of the transatlantic slave trade.

These ships were horror shows. Captured human beings were manacled and packed like rotting sardines beneath the decks, often upward of 500 souls per craft, in voyages that lasted weeks to months. The lack of treatment offered to these groaning assemblages was so acute—sparse food, water, or basic cleaning and aid—that a large percentage didn’t survive the voyage. They perished and began rotting where they had been stuffed. The subsequent stench was so unbearable that hardened seamen refused to venture beneath the decks.

But one man was undeterred: Fr. Peter Claver. In fact, he got there first. He showed those people an affection that no other person on those ships dared to do.

Claver biographer Arnold Lunn described what the scene looked like:

Let us watch the [slaves] as they disembark. Down the gangway they come, a forlorn straggle of hopeless misery, starving, half mad, and frantic with home-sickness. They have been chained for three months below decks in an atmosphere so horrible that no white man could thrust his head into it without fainting. They have endured every conceivable form of brutality, physical and mental. Many have died on the voyage, and those who have survived are half dead. They have left everything, home, liberty, families, and have nothing to hope for.

Suddenly, the curious crowd of watchers falls back, and a little man bustles through carrying a large basket full of fruit, tobacco and bandages. His face beams as he approaches the Negroes. He wastes no time before getting to work. His first task is to baptize the dying, and then to wash and feed the sick.

The little man couldn’t get to these wounded souls quickly enough. Fr. Peter Claver wanted to hop on board so quickly to love his distant neighbors that he eventually received permission to row out to the ships before they docked, a request that must have astonished captains and crews. He grabbed a rope ladder, pulled himself up, boarded the ship, and descended into its guts. Some of the slaves later said that they could actually see the figure of this future saint “illumined in rays of glory.”

And perhaps they did.

“This was how we spoke to them, not with words but with our hands and actions,” Claver wrote to his superiors on May 31, 1627. He continued: 

And in fact, convinced as they were that they had been brought here to be eaten, any other language would have proven 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.

When Peter ran out of towels to wipe the slaves’ faces and bodies, he took off his cloak and used that, too. “As some of his interpreters witnessed,” wrote Joseph Sladky,

the cloak had to be washed up to seven times a day from the stink and filth which it had accumulated. It was routine for Claver to console his fellow man by joyfully undertaking practices which were considered extremely repugnant to most. 

How repugnant? One eyewitness reported, “Most admirable was that he not only cleansed these plague-ridden ulcers with the two handkerchiefs he kept for that, but did not hesitate to press his lips to them.” 

Unafraid of the smell or disease, Claver hugged and even kissed the captives, like Jesus Christ did with the lepers.

Claver showed such tender affection to tens of thousands of captives. He treated them and preached to them. He baptized an estimated 300,000 slaves. In one Lent alone, he heard 5,000 confessions. He considered them not servants, but himself a servant to them. He slept in their own quarters at times, always with them. That is, when he slept. He reportedly slept only three hours each night. St. Peter Claver showed such tender affection to tens of thousands of captives. He treated them and preached to them. He baptized an estimated 300,000 slaves.Tweet This

Peter Claver slept with the captives and got sick with them, suffering sicknesses and even multiple epidemics with them. Eventually, he died with them.

Ironically, and sadly, Claver’s end seemed especially unjust. He was put under the care of a cruel and brutal black slave who abused and tormented him. But like Christ, Claver accepted that suffering, carrying his cross and offering it up. Arnold Lunn speculated: “Perhaps this supreme trial was the culminating test of sanctity for which these long years of massive preparation had been designed.”

Perhaps so. Only God knows.

“I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death,” wrote Claver, “on the understanding that I am like a slave, wholly occupied in the service of his master and in the endeavor to please and content him in all and in every way with his whole soul, body, and mind.”

Peter Claver died on September 8, 1654. He would become known by many names, from “slave of the slaves” to the “Apostle of the West Indies.” He would also become known as a saint, canonized by Pope Leo XIII in January 1888. The pope christened Claver the Patron of All the Missions to the Negroes.

A slave to the slaves until the very end. To borrow again from Pope Leo XIII, other than the life of Christ Himself, it is hard to find a life more moving than that of St. Peter Claver.  


  • Paul Kengor

    Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author, most recently, of The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020).

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