CJL: The unusual history of a 16th century Black Jewish messiah

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Minor historical figures can have an unusually large impact on history. Take for example, David Reubeni. In his introduction to “Diary of a Black Jewish Messiah: The Sixteenth-Century Journey of David Reubeni through Africa, the Middle East, and Europe” (Stamford University Press), Alan Verskin suggests that Reubeni’s visit to Portugal was the impetus for King Joao III’s request that the pope bring the Inquisition to Portugal. Verskin, associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, discusses what is known about Reubeni and offers a translation of the diary Reubeni kept during his travels.

In the opening of his diary, Reubeni writes, “I am David the son of King Solomon, of blessed memory. My older brother is King Joseph who, from his throne in the desert of Habor, rules over thirty myriads – over the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half the tribe of Manasseh.” He claims that he traveled to Europe to meet with the pope and the rulers of Europe to gain weapons in order to conquer the Holy Land from the Muslims. The Europe he approached was not one friendly to Jews: Spain would not let a Jew set foot on its shores without special permission. In fact, there were supposed to be no Jews remaining in Spain or Portugal because they either had had to leave the country or convert to Christianity. However, these converts, known as conversos, were still not fully accepted: although they were no longer Jewish, they were suspected of practicing Jewish customs in secret. 

While Reubeni never claimed to be a messiah, Verskin says his arrival in 1524 came at a time when “apocalyptic thinking was widespread across social classes [of Europe], and there was an atmosphere of pervasive fear and anticipation of the coming of the End.” While Reubeni’s actual ethnic identity is unknown, his skin color played into a Jewish belief that the lost tribes of Israel were hidden somewhere on the African continent. Although in his diary Reubeni describes traveling through Islamic countries disguised as a Muslim, the first historical evidence of him outside his diary is when he arrived penniless in Europe, claiming to have been robbed. 

Reubeni must have been a convincing speaker. He managed to receive money, clothing and other gifts from every town and country he visited. In Portugal, conversos flocked to him, although Reubeni claims he made no effort to help them return to Judaism. In fact, he chastised those who did because they interfered with his mission. Still, it’s understandable that these forced converts hoped that this mysterious man from a Jewish kingdom was there to redeem them. The fact that Reubeni hoped to conquer the Holy Land and create a Jewish kingdom there also fed into their desire for change. 

Reubeni’s diary is interesting for what is missing: there are no philosophical or theological discussions of Judaism. In fact, its pages are filled with trivia. A large portion lists the gifts he gave or received and their cost. He frequently complains about his servants or the evil men who are thwarting his plans. Reubeni is not beyond beating his slaves when they displease him or sending away servants who have made him unhappy. He admits that his anger sometimes gets the best of him and that his desire for honor created problems for his mission. 

As Verskin notes in his introduction, there is no historical record of the Jewish kingdom of which Reubeni speaks. Was it real or was he a con man? Was he a Muslim (as he says he had to pretend to be in order to reach Europe safely) who pretended to be a Jew? Did he really plan to conquer the Holy Land or was his plan an elaborate fraud? And, even if it began as a fraud, did he come to believe that he would be able to unite the forces of Europe against the forces of Islam? It’s difficult to tell, which is what makes his story so interesting.

Reubeni’s ending was not a pleasant one. He was arrested when trying to visit the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and condemned by the Inquisition before being turned over to secular authorities to be burned at the stake in 1538. As for his legacy, Verkin notes that Reubeni was largely ignored until after World War I when the Zionist movement began to gain success. Then he was seen as a proto-Zionist: someone who wanted to create a kingdom of Israel with human hands, rather than waiting for God to deliver the Jews. Whatever readers think about Reubeni and his life, his tale is a fascinating look at 16th century Jewish history.