The Day Virginia Woolf Duped The Royal Navy

“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.” —Horace de Vere Cole

In A Nutshell

In 1910, an honor guard aboard the HMS Dreadnought welcomed six members of the Abyssinian royal family—or so the navy thought. In fact, the six were young friends, among them Virginia Woolf, who had disguised themselves with make-up and false beards.

The Whole Bushel

Horace de Vere Cole was a noted lover of practical jokes, and he achieved national fame in 1910 with what became known as “The Dreadnought Hoax.”

He had five friends, including Virginia Woolf (Virginia Stephens at the time), blacked up and dressed in exotic robes and turbans. Writing a telegraph, signed in the name of a government minister, he informed the officers of HMS Dreadnought to expect foreign dignitaries. Cole played the part of the group’s interpreter. To reach the ship, he had a VIP carriage set aside for his group of princes.

On arrival, the navy found that it did not have the appropriate flag for a visit from Abyssinians. Instead, the flag of Zanzibar was used. The group was apparently unperturbed. Their utterances, such as they were, were duly translated by Cole. Since Virginia nor any of the others spoke a language appropriate to their supposed position, except some hastily acquired Swahili, they used mangled versions of Greek and Latin. Each time they were shown something sufficiently impressive they declared “Bunga bunga!”

When invited to dine, the group claimed they had to decline for customary reasons related to food. In fact, the make-up and beards presented something of a challenge, and they did not want either ending up in the soup. A passing rain shower presented similar hazard to their costumes. The group returned to London without anyone being the wiser. A relative of Virginia’s serving on the Dreadnought failed to recognize her. The next day Cole wrote to a friend:

“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!”

Once the prank was revealed, the British papers had a field day, much to the embarrassment of the navy. Cole sent copies of photographs showing the “princes” in costume for the papers to publish. HMS Dreadnought was sent to sea on maneuvers to spare it from further mockery. When Dreadnought saw action in the First World War and sunk an enemy ship, the hoax was remembered by at least one well-wisher who sent a message remarking on their achievement “Bunga bunga.”

While the navy was upset, so was the Emperor of Abyssinia (the real one). When he visited Britain he was greeted by children chanting “Bunga bunga!” and refused access to the navy for fear he would bring more ridicule down on them.

Cole was not arrested for his prank, no law had been broken, but was threatened with a caning by naval officers. This does not seem to have deterred him from undertaking future hoaxes and was noted for his practical jokes throughout his life.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: How a bearded Virginia Woolf and her band of ‘jolly savages’ hoaxed the navy
Virginia Woolf and Friends Dress Up as “Abyssinian Princes” and Fool the British Royal Navy (1910)
Museum of Hoaxes: The Dreadnought Hoax, 1910