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San Pedro Claver: The Slave of the Slaves?

This Jesuit priest is the patron saint of enslaved people, but his legacy is complicated.

Portrait of saint Peter Claver with a young slave
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  • Portrait of San Pedro Claver in the Palace of Inquisition, Cartagena.Photo Credit: Wikipedia; NOAA / Unsplash

San Pedro Claver, also known as Saint Peter Claver, was a Jesuit priest in the early 1600s. He was assigned to the New World in 1616, specifically to Cartagena, Colombia, which was a huge center for the slave trade. His mission there lasted decades, and he made it a point to witness specifically to newly enslaved people who were just arriving to the Americas. For this altruism, he was known as the “Slave of the Slaves,” and he was the first saint canonized in the New World. 

It all sounds very noble, until I look at it a little harder…and take into account a few historical circumstances. Like, for example, the fact that Jesuits in the 16th century were pro-slavery, or that iconography currently portraying him is rife with imagery of a white savior liberating helpless victims. These realities had me troubled, and those are the thoughts that ran through my mind as I stood in his sanctuary in Cartagena this spring, staring at his gold-gilded actual human remains, which were interred in the altar. 

The main question rolling in my mind was this: was San Pedro truly the slave of the slaves, or was he (also) complicit in the slave trade? 

I didn’t expect to find a simple, straightforward answer, but naturally, I still had to investigate. First, I want to examine what actions qualified San Pedro for canonization. 

Pedro Claver entered the Society of Jesus in 1602. Eight years later, he was sent to Cartagena, Colombia. It took still another eight years for him to be ordained. If nothing else, that timeline alone shows incredible resolve. The New World, and passage to it, were wildly dangerous, not just on the open water, but from exposure to diseases as well. Jesuits were especially involved in missionary work, more than any other activity, except for education. 

Cartagena was also a huge port for the slave trade. Unlike his contemporaries, Claver would board the ships in port as soon as they completed the Middle Passage, as he was dedicated to alleviating their suffering. When he visited the ships and slave pens, he brought with him interpreters, food, and medicines. He then nursed the sick, comforted the distraught, and taught Catholicism. He’s known for giving his own cloak to anyone who seemed to need it, which even inspired a legend that his cloak itself had healing powers.

San Pedro Claver didn’t stop at the Middle Passage, though, because that was a seasonal trade. Over the course of 38 years, he also visited slaves on plantations to encourage their faith. San Pedro often even slept in the slave quarters, denying the hospitality of the slaves’ owners. It’s estimated that he baptized 300,000 slaves during his lifetime (a questionable figure since only about one tenth of that number actually passed through Cartagena during the time when he lived there). 

That's how he earned the moniker "slave of the slaves." He's still the patron saint of enslaved people and seafarers. Like all saints, he was canonized posthumously. Pope Leo XIII proclaimed in 1896 that he was the patron saint of all Catholic missions to African peoples, as well. 

Testifying and caring for slaves both physically and spiritually was certainly more than most people’s efforts. But one of San Pedro’s habits gave me pause. When he visited the local plantations, he also “exhort(ed) their (the slaves’) masters to treat them humanely.” I read that as, he didn’t encourage the masters to free the humans they owned…he told them to be nice about it.

It's also worth noting that Jesuit priests at the time were in support of slavery. As late as the mid 1700s, Jesuits had “turned to the enslavement of human beings to help fuel the growth of the early Catholic Church…at the time, the Catholic Church did not view slaveholding as immoral.” I’m not really clear as to how they reached this conclusion, but I was able to find a record that in Toledo, Spain in 655, an order was issued saying that “Christian people could be enslaved as a criminal punishment, for debt, or could sell themselves or their children.” 

Sometimes, slaves were freed upon conversion to Catholicism, as well. But just because the Catholic church accepted it doesn’t mean slavery was a universally accepted way of life, even to their contemporaries. The abolitionist movement dates back at least as far as San Pedro Claver.

One source says that Claver felt “that it was better to die a Christian slave in Cartagena than a native chieftain in the Congo,” because then the soul was saved.

This information was not a solid enough foundation for me to make my own judgement about San Pedro. So, I found myself asking the obvious, straightforward question: did San Pedro Claver, the slave of the slaves, own slaves himself?  And the answer is yes. 

There’s plenty of source material saying that Claver’s slaves were afforded uncommon freedoms (though not actual freedom), and he only punished them physically when he saw that they were behaving immorally…but that immoral behavior included dancing Colombia’s folkloric dance the cumbia, for which he punished them by whipping them with a key.

One author, James Martin, S.J. says, "It's unjust to cast St. Peter Claver, who worked tirelessly with the slaves, in a bad light. "How many of us would take the risks to do what Peter did? Moreover, there are some holy people who work for structural change—think of someone like Dorothy Day. There are others who concentrate on direct care for those who are suffering—think of someone like Mother Teresa. Peter was more like Mother Teresa. No saint can do everything, but what Peter did, he did heroically. It is also a testimony to his witness that so many people, including African-Americans, still find him a source of holiness."

I hear that, and I acknowledge that people contain multitudes, etc., but it’s not enough for me. Maybe that is unjust, but it also seems unjust to celebrate or venerate him for something he didn’t really do. San Pedro may have comforted slaves, but he was also directly complicit in the slave trade that brought misery to so many people.

A more objective source says that, “Claver is worthy of a certain degree of veneration and imitation. He was a man who was deeply moved by the conditions endured by Africans, the poorest of the poor. Yet his good intentions were never turned towards ending the cruel system that fueled Black suffering. It would not be until 1839, almost two centuries after Claver’s death, that Pope Gregory XVI would condemn the trade of enslaved Africans.” I think it’s worth acknowledging as well that over a hundred years passed before Pedro Claver was canonized…which is plenty of time to instate a revisionist version of his history.

The article I found to be the harshest on San Pedro Claver is also the one that’s the most academic, the best researched, and the most organized. It’s Nicole von Germeten’s essay, “A Century of Promoting Saint Peter Claver and Catholicism to African Americans: Claverian Historiography from 1868-1965.” Her research examines all the questions I asked here, but in closer detail. And for anyone interested in diving deep into the research of the life of San Pedro Claver, the slave of the slaves, I recommend the book Fugitive Saints: Catholicism and the Politics of Slavery by Katie Walker Grimes.