Cartagena has seen slavery come and go, but
there was one man who fought against it long
before it was abolished. His name was Pedro
Claver was born in Verdu, Spain on 26 June,
1580. When aged just 13, his mother died, to
be followed by his elder brother's death a few
days later. When he was 22 he joined the Jesuits.
On the day he made his vows, he wrote that he
wished to "...do God's service, as if I were
1605, when he was 25 and studying in Majorca,
Pedro met Alfonso Rodriguez, who became his
mentor. Alfonso later had a vision where he
said he saw a vacant throne in heaven, and a
voice prophesised it was for Pedro, who would
be facing dangers in the Indies. Alonso asked
Pedro to go to the Indies (America) and work
with the people there.
April 1610 Pedro boarded the Spanish galleon
'San Pedro'. He arrived in Cartagena but spent
some time working in Santa Fe (Bogota) and Tunja,
before returning to Cartagena. In 1616, at the
age of 35, he was ordained by Cartagena's bishop,
Fray Pedro de la Vega. He worked with Father
Sandoval, author of the book "Salvation and
Catechizing the Negroes". They worked in the
slave markets in what is now the Santo Domingo
and Santa Clara areas of Cartagena. He was appalled
by the treatment of the slaves, vowing to help
them, and wrote in his diary, on 3 April 1622
"Pedro Claver, slave of the slaves forever".
with Father Sandoval, Pedro would go down to
the docks to meet thearriving slave ships, keeping
an eye out for them from a watchtower. The ships
came from all over West Africa, and the slaves
spoke many different languages. The spectacle
of what they saw being offloaded was shocking:
a terrible smell, half starved men, women and
children chained in groups of six, having not
seen daylight nor washed for months. It was
usual for a third of the poor souls to die en
route. The slaves were extremely frightened
when they came ashore, convinced they were about
to be sacrificed. Pedro tried to put them at
ease with his retinue of interpreters, and gifts
of blankets and fresh fruit. Sometimes Pedro
would not wait for the ship to offload, but
paddle out in a canoe.
began to show strength where other priests showed
weakness. He would often kiss the open and infected
wounds of the slaves, telling them that God
loved them. He was seen to punish himself with
a whip whenever he felt he lacked the strength
to carry on. He would baptise the dying first,
then the sick.
Nicholas was his companion for many years, and
recalled there were times that he could not
cope with Pedro Claver's work. Many times he
went to see dying slaves, held in stinking dungeons
in the slaveowner's houses, where others could
not enter due to the stench of death and sickness.
While others steeled themsleves or turned back,
Pedro would whip himself and force himself to
kiss the slaves' wounds. In 1633, they both
went to see a slave girl dying of smallpox.
Brother Nicholas took one breath of the foul
air in the girl's room, fell down, and could
not continue. Pedro gave the negress his crucifix
to kiss, cleaned her wounds, and prayed for
her. The girl recovered.
fellow priests grew alarmed at this man who
never ceased to work, and never had time to
recieve the confessions of the slave owners.
Pedro ignored their requests that he slow down.
Much of his work was done in his own time: he
taught catechism for 8 hours a day, but managed
to baptise 300,000 slaves over the next 40 years.
last 4 years of Pedro's life were very tragic.
He was afflicted by a degenerative disease that
slowly made him bedridden. He was given his
own slave, Manuel, who was charged with feeding
and helping him. Manuel is known to have mistreated
his master, pushing him roughly when helping
him get dressed. Even then, the semi-parylised
Pedro Claver would whip himself, saying "my
faults are worth more (pain and suffering)"
7 September 1654 the City of Cartagena was abuzz
with the news that Pedro had lost his voice
and was dying. Pedro Claver died on the next
day. Brother Nicholas wrote that Pedro finally
had an expression of peace on his face. Pedro
had a friend, Doņa Isabel de Urbina, who for
many years allowed her slave Margarita cook
special food for the lepers who Pedro ministered
at San Lazaro. That day Isabel was crying over
Pedro's passing, and being comforted by Margarita,
Isabel released her from her slavery.
Claver was beatified in 1850, and cannonized
a Saint by Pope Leo XII in 1888. Alfonso Rodriguez,
Pedro's friend who had the dream about the vacant
throne and urged him to go to Cartagena, was
proclaimed a Saint on the same day. In 1917
Pedro Claver's tombstone was discovered in the
room that today attracts thousands of tourists
annually. His bones were moved to a glass coffin
under the altar of Cartagena's Cathedral de
San Pedro Claver, where Pope John Paul II prayed
during his 1986 visit, as did Bill and Chelsea
Clinton during their visit to Cartagena in August
2000. In the cloister adjoining the Catherdral,
the room where he spent the last years of his
life is open to visitors, along with a series
of graphic paintings telling the story of how
he helped the slaves. Some tropical parrots
are kept in the adjoining courtyard, and a sundial
commemorating the Centenery of Independence
can be seen topped by a small 12" cannon.
new bronze statue of San Pedro helping an Angolan
slave, 2m tall and sculpted by Colombian sculptor
Enrique Grau, was unveiled in front of the cloister
in September 2001. It is set not on a pedastal,
but at ground level, accesible to people on
the street, just as San Pedro was in real life.