The Dreadnought Hoax was a practical joke that Virginia Woolf and her friends played on the British Navy when they disguised themselves as Abyssinian princes and convinced the navy to give them a private tour of Britain’s flagship, the H.M.S. Dreadnought.
The prank occurred in February of 1910, when the group of friends, which included their ringleader Horace de Vere Cole, Virginia’s brother Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton, Duncan Grant as well as Virginia Woolf (who was then Virginia Stephen), disguised their skin color with skin darkeners, dressed up in long caftans, placed turbans on their heads and glued fake beards to their faces (Virginia on the left).
After disguising themselves, the group then sent a telegram to the navy announcing their intended arrival at the ship and headed to London’s Paddington station.
At the station, Cole introduced himself to the stationmaster as Herbert Cholmondeley of the UK Foreign Office and asked for a special train to take them to Weymouth. Fooled by their disguises, the stationmaster supplied them with a private coach.
Once they arrived in Weymouth, they were greeted by an honor guard. An Abyssinian flag was not found, so the navy proceeded to use that of Zanzibar and to play Zanzibar's national anthem. Then the guests of honor were taken to Dorset, where the ship was moored. There the group inspected the fleet and took a private tour of the Dreadnought. Throughout the tour, the “princes” spoke in Swahili as well as random gibberish, proclaiming “Bunga! Bunga!” over and over, asked for prayer mats and awarded various crew members with fake military honors. Adrian and Virginia also found themselves shaking hands with their cousin, who was an officer on the ship, but even he failed to recognize them through their disguises.
When invited to dine with the officers they declined, in their version of Swahili – seemingly translated by Woolf's brother, Adrian Stephen – because the food and drink had not been prepared correctly. The group actually feared that their fake beards would fall off.
After a few hours, Adrian declared the state visit was over and asked to be taken back to Weymouth. During the ride home, the pranksters decided not to tell the press about their little joke in order to spare the navy any further embarrassment.
Always the attention-seeker, Cole went to the press anyway without telling the others. Within a few days the hoax was front page news. Upon learning that a young woman had taken part in the prank, the press discovered Virginia’s identity, as well as the identity of the others, and appeared at their homes asking for interviews, which they granted. The public fascination with the hoax lasted well over a week before it eventually died down.
According to various newspaper reports, in retribution for their actions, several members of the group were later abducted by the navy and caned. One of the hoaxsters, the artist Duncan Grant, was bundled off in a cab, taken to a field, and given two ceremonial taps of a cane. Cole was given six taps on his bum, though after negotiation and in the British spirit of fair play he was allowed to administer six taps to the naval bums also.
The prank spurred the British military to tighten restrictions on all future state visits by foreign ambassadors. After the real Emperor of Ethiopia visited England later that year, he was chased through the streets by children shouting “Bunga! Bunga!” and when he asked to inspect the navy’s fleet, the admiral politely declined out of fear of further embarrassment.
When in 1915 during the First World War, HMS Dreadnought rammed and sank a German submarine among the telegrams of congratulation was one that read "BUNGA BUNGA".
It is interesting to know that the hoaxters, at first, intended an oven more elaborate jest. They had meant to start in Paris, and then come over and take suite of rooms at the Savoy Hotel, and attack London from there. The Paris floods forced them to cut the prank to a shorter version.
Video Clip with Duncan Grant talking to Roy Plomley in 1975, telling the story:
The latest update on this story has come surprisingly just recently, when a previously unknown letter, written by Horace de Vere Cole, has surfaced. The letter was written by Cole to a friend a day after the hoax. Noting that, "the idea was mine, but the carrying out was the work of six," Cole wrote: "The interpreter, the four princes and an officer went over the ship talking gibberish fluently … We departed to the band strains and the company of marines drawn up and the staff at the salute once more.
"It was glorious! Shriekingly funny – I nearly howled when introducing the four princes to the admiral and then to the captain, for I made their names up in the train, but I forgot which was which, and introduced them under various names, but it did not matter!
"They were tremendously polite and nice – couldn't have been nicer: one almost regretted the outrage on their hospitality."
Cole added: "I was so amused at being just myself in a tall hat – I had no disguise whatever and talked in an ordinary friendly way to everyone – the others talked nonsense. We had all learned some Swahili: I said they were 'jolly savages' but that I didn't understand much of what they said … It began to rain slightly on the ship and we only just got the princes under cover in time, another moment and their complexions would have been running – Are you amused? I am … Yesterday was a day worth the living."
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