St Peter Claver (September 8) was known as 'the key' for his work unlocking the souls of slaves

Born in Catalonia in 1581, St Peter would minister across the Americas and become the patron saint of slaves. He became known as Claver, “the key”, for his work unlocking the souls of the slaves he tended.

Born into a wealthy farming family about 50 miles from Barcelona, he was raised in a kingdom that was then at the epicentre of the Atlantic slave trade. Although slavery is as old as history, the Spanish discovery of the Americas, and the triangular trade with Africa, brought it to new levels.

Slavery presented a new challenge to the Church. Paul III had condemned slavery and Urban VIII issued a decree prohibiting it, but it made men fortunes.

The hundreds of thousands of African slaves transported to the Americas, to do work that the dying Indians were unable to do, suffered appalling mistreatment. Their conditions and salvation would dominate Claver’s life.

Studying at the University of Barcelona, Peter was known for his piety and at one point wrote in his notebook: “I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave.” He would keep the book with him his whole life.

Joining the Jesuits at the age of 20, he was sent to Mallorca, where he became friendly with St Alphonsus Rodriguez, who told Claver that he was to spend his life in the New World.

Arriving in New Granada, in what is now Venezuela and Colombia, he saw the brutality of the slave trade and the inhumanity with which black slaves were treated. They were being brought over from Angola and the Congo for a few coins. Cartagena, in today’s Colombia, was a major destination, with a third of slaves dying on the way.

Claver was inspired by Jesuit Fr Alonso de Sandoval, who spent 40 years devoted to the slaves and brought back to Seville documents about the customs and beliefs of Africans. Claver would arrive at the ships as soon as they reached the port, boarding the filthy boats where the terrified slaves were huddled.

Claver wore a cloak and a belief arose among the slaves that whoever touched the cloak would be cured
of all diseases. When slaves were sent to yards to be sold, Claver provided them with medicine, food and brandy. During his 40 years of ministry he baptised an estimated 300,000 slaves and did his best to ensure their dignity as Christians was respected. Travelling from town to town, he avoided the hospitality of slavers and would instead stay with slaves, although he also ministered to wealthy members of society, as well as Muslims and Protestants.

Eventually the pressure began to tell, but by the time he died, on September 8 1654, treatment of the slaves had improved and the casual cruelty and barbarism had become less acceptable.

Today the Knights of Peter Claver is the largest Catholic African-American society in the United States, and there are numerous parishes across the Americas that bear his name.