San Pedro Claver

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.

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 " God's service, as if I were a slave..."

In 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.

In 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".

Along 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.

Pedro 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.

Brother 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.

Pedro's 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.

The 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)"

On 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.

Pedro 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.

A 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.

Photo and story copyright of Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' is available from Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short