Popes of the Catholic Church condemned chattel slavery, or personal slavery. Pope Pius II in 1462 called it a great crime. “Pope Paul III in 1537 called the exploiters of the practice the instruments of Satan.”
Chattel slavery considered persons as personal property that can be bought, sold and inherited as commodities. Twelve to 15 million Africans were transported to the New World to supply labor-intensive plantations and gold mines from the mid-15th century to the 19th century.
Each of the 36,000 Transatlantic voyages carried chattel Africans from 15 tribes to 20 tribes sold by “petty kings in Africa.”
For 40 years, Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest alleviated their sufferings.
‘That I am like a slave’
Claver, “probably the first white man to take any friendly interest in these unfortunates [slaves],” was born on June 26, 1580, in Verdu, Spain. His mother prayed for his vocation to Hannah, the mother of prophet Samuel and to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
That “nothing should come between him and the love of God,” was taught him, who died when he was 13. The next year, he left for Barcelona to study.
In Tarragona, Catalonia in Spain, when asked about his motivation to enter religious life, he wrote: “To become a saint, and…save many souls.”
He surpassed his classmates in piety and learning.
After his novitiate, Claver wrote a pledge on a notebook he kept throughout his lifetime.
“I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, 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 whole soul, body and mind,” he wrote.
Alphonsus Rodriguez, the doorkeeper of the Jesuit college in Majorca and who would later become a saint together with Claver, became his best friend. The college superior allowed them to spend 15 minutes a day to exchange spiritual thoughts. Rodriguez, who was acknowledged for his humility, urged Claver to work for the missions to save many souls.
After taking his vows on August 8, 1604, Claver was sent to Cartagena, now Colombia, a major port in South America, where about 1,000 African slaves arrived every month.
“Unspeakably atrocious,” was how Robert Ellsberg described the condition of the chattel slaves in Saint Peter Claver, Missioner to Slaves.
Bro. Michael, MICM, in Slave of Slaves described the the slaves as “shackled below the ships deck—a floating hell. They lay together…fear-like sardines, naked and bleeding in cold damp of winter or excruciating heat of summer.”
‘For half-dead Africans’
Claver negotiated with the captain of the ship to allow him to minister to “half-dead Africans,” who looked like black skeletons. He gave them food, drinks and treated their wounds. He blessed the dead and administered the last rites to the dying. He sought help from a brother and a religious interpreters to help in the apostolate.
His missionary zeal was not dampened by antagonistic and callous merchants and “misgivings of his own superiors for his indiscreet zeal,” noted the Missionary Sisters of Saint Peter Claver of North America.
Claver humbly explained: “We must speak to them with our hands before we speak to them with our lips.”
Between the monthly arrivals of slaves, he went where they were assigned. He had missions, solemnized their marriages, baptized their children and taught catechism, emphasizing they are “precious in the eyes of God.”
Baptismal ceremonies were held in the town plaza. It was estimated that he had baptized more than 3,000,000 Africans.
At the baptisms Claver gifted each with a medal of Saint Joseph and Mary. From a very corrupt seaport and through his intercessory prayers, the city was slowly transformed into a “good city.” Claver’s sanctity, complimented with miracles and conversions, convinced the people of his holiness.
When an epidemic raged in Cartagena in 1650, Claver, who was already old and paralyzed, spent 15 hours a day in the confessional.
He died on September 8, the feast day of the Black Virgin. Fifty years earlier, on the same month and date, Claver went on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Madonna on the mountain of Catolonia, where Saint Ignatius de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits laid his sword at the feast of the Black Madonna.
Saint Peter was beatified on July 20, 1850, by Pope Pius IX. He was canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII with his bosom friend, Alphonsus Rodriguez.
He was proclaimed the Patron of All Catholic Mission by Pope Leo in 1896.
Damo-Santiago is a former regional director of the Department of Education National Capital Region. She is currently a faculty member of Mater Redemptoris Collegium in Calauan, Laguna, and of Mater Redemptoris College in San Jose City, Nueva Ecija.