It was a nine days wonder; it was noticed and embroidered in the press, it resulted in questions in Parliament, it is said to have led to a revision of the security regulations of the Royal Navy. It was a source of endless merriment and some indignation … The only merit of the plan, in so far as there was a plan, lay in its pure lunatic audacity (Quentin Bell)
On the 7th of February, 1910, the HMS Dreadnought, a battleship of the British Royal Navy considered to be a revolution of naval technology, welcomed aboard a delegation of Abyssinian Royals that included two interpreters. Soon after, the Daily Mirror published a picture and a story about the whole affair informing that the whole visit was in fact a prank, mastered by the poet and prankster Horace De Vere Cole and writer Adrian Stephen along with Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton, Duncan Grant and Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf), all of whom formed the famous Bloomsbury Group, a cohort of writers, intellectuals, artists and philosophers who influenced the arts in Britain, in the first half of the 20th century. By the 12th of February, 1910, the prank became common news, reducing the Royal Navy to ridicule.
To this day, there seems to be only a single, complete first-hand account of the hoax survives entitled ‘The Dreadnought Hoax’, composed by Adrian Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s brother. Published in 1936 by the Hogarth Press (co-founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf), Stephen summarises the original idea behind the prank, where a friend of Cole’s, a naval officer on board the HMS Hawke desired to play a practical joke on another officer, the chief command officer of another battleship HMS Dreadnought, who also happened to be Stephen’s cousin. Virgina Woolf recounts about the incident,
In those days the young officers had a gay time. They were always up to some lark; and one of their chief occupations it seemed was to play jokes on each other. There were a great many rivalries and intrigues in the navy. The officers like scoring off each other. And the officers of the Hawke and the Dreadnought had a feud … And Cole’s friend who was on the Hawke had come to Cole, and said to him, ‘You’re a great hand at hoaxing people; couldn’t you do something to pull the leg of the Dreadnought?
Putting the hoax in motion, the group of friends sent the Admiral of the battleship a telegram, falsely signed by the Under-secretary of the Foreign Office Sir Charles Hardinge. The telegram gave orders for the preparation of the ship for a visit of the royal Abyssinian delegation. The six friends set out from London’s Paddington Station to Weymouth where they were diligently received by the Navy. Since an Abyssinian flag was not found, Zanzibar’s flag and National Anthem were used to honour and welcome the royal princes. Cole posed as a young gentleman from the Foreign Office while Stephen donned the attire of an interpreter. Buxton disguised as the Abyssinian Emperor and the rest posed as his royal posse. Stephen, in his account, recollects the whole garb of clothing, accoutrements and paraphernalia that were required-
Horace Cole had just to wear a top-hat and tail coat, but the Emperor and his suite, including Virginia, had to have their faces blackened, to wear false beards and mustaches and elaborate Easter robes. I was merely disguised with a false beard, a mustache, and a little sunburn powder. I wore a bowler hat and a great coat and looked, I am afraid, like a seedy commercial traveler.
This improvisation extended to the manner of speaking itself, whereby each one of the six people spoke a few words of Swahili combining it with gibberish sounds, making the officers believe in the authenticity of the whole visit. In fact, Virginia Woolf, then 28 and unmarried, did not utter a single word in order to hide her gender. They ate little on the ship, worried that their moustaches would peel off. Interestingly, the phrase ‘bunga bunga’ (associated with former Italian President Silvio Berlusconi’s scandalous parties) seems to have been popularised during this prank, for whenever the Commander of DMS Dreadnought pointed out the specialities of the marvellous ship, the group exclaimed ‘bunga bunga’ in surprise.
The embarrassment of British Navy became more and more apparent as they sent out the warship to sea till the whole episode blew over. Realising that a demand for a formal punishment for the pranksters would only make the whole affair more popular, the Navy settled on an informal punishment where each participant was symbolically tapped on their buttocks with a cane(except Virginia Woolf) , in the form of a British school punishment.
In 2012, a letter written by Cole to a friend about the Dreadnought Hoax was discovered where Cole narrated,
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!
Cole further added in the letter,
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.
Funnily enough, in 1915, during the First World War, when the HMS Dreadnought rammed and sank a German Submarine (being the only battleship to have done so), it received telegrams with words of congratulation that read, “BUNGA BUNGA”!