How a small group of literary twenty-somethings pulled off “the most daring hoax in history.”
On February 7, 1910, six friends pulled off one of the greatest pranks in history — on the Royal Navy, no less. Among them was Virginia Woolf — at the time still Virginia Stephen, an unpublished twenty-eight-year-old aspiring author — wearing drag and a turban. It’s a remarkable story about privacy and security, about poking fun at society’s ideas about bravery and authority, and perhaps above all about how relative our moral codes for justice and injustice are. It’s also a timeless fable of how, even a century before the age of clickbait, the popular press that claims Truth is its currency is complicit in the success of any hoax.
To this day, the only first-hand account of the prank is The ‘Dreadnought’ Hoax (public library), written by Adrian Stephen, Virginia’s brother and a member of the Bloomsbury Group, who co-initiated the operation along with the famed British prankster and poet William Horace de Vere Cole. The slim memoir was originally published in 1936 by Hogarth Press, co-founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and reprinted in 1983 with an introduction by Virginia’s nephew and official biographer Quentin Bell, with whom she had collaborated on a charming family newspaper and who went on to become a cultural critic in his own right. Bell writes of the hoax:
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.
But a few things make the story particularly noteworthy, besides the disarmingly entertaining image of Woolf in turban, beard, and brownface and the fact that it brought the eventually-famous author her very first contact with the national press. It is, above all, a curious parable of moral psychology and how we rationalize our subjective sense of justice and injustice. It also sparks a strange dual awareness of, on the one hand, how hoaxes today are so much easier to propagate thanks to the churnalism of the social web and, on the other, how impossible it would be to pull off something like this in our present era of TSA-style mega-security. (Even Bell, decades before 9/11, writes wryly: “We have all grown more solemn and serious and ‘security conscious’ and a part of the fun went out of life after [World War I].”)
The story itself is an absolute hoot. It all began in 1905, when Adrian Stephen and Horace Cole were attending Cambridge and, out of boredom, decided to play a little prank. Their initial idea was to acquire some uniforms, impersonate German officers, and march a detachment of troops across the border into France. It was partly pure fun, partly political statement. Stephen writes:
It had seemed to me ever since I was very young, just as I imagine it had seemed to Cole, that anyone who took up an attitude of authority over anyone else was necessarily also someone who offered a leg for everyone else to pull, and of all the institutions in the world that offered a leg for everyone’s pulling the most obvious was the German Army.
But Cole countered with an idea that was “easier and cheaper to carry out”: Since the Sultan of Zanzibar happened to be in England at the time, the duo decided to impersonate him and pay a state visit to Cambridge. They reasoned it was a bad idea to hoax the University, fearing expulsion, so they deemed it safer to hoax the Mayor of Cambridge instead. But because photos of the Sultan had appeared in the newspapers and neither of them looked anything like him, they decided instead to impersonate his imaginary uncle. They got full makeup and costume at a theatrical shop in London and took the train back to Cambridge, first sending a telegram to the Mayor warning him to expect the Sultan’s uncle. Once in Cambridge, they were formally received by the Mayor and even accompanied him on a visit to a charity bazaar, where Cole, as the Sultan’s uncle, proceeded to make “enormous purchases at all the stalls” — proof that pranks are only ever the domain of the privileged.
The hoax was a success — so much so that the Daily Mail ran a story about it, which unfortunately sent an investigator on Stephen and Cole’s trail. Their identities were eventually exposed and they narrowly escaped being expelled from Cambridge.
But their appetites for mischief were now whetted.
It took another five years for their next adventure, but once the perfect opportunity presented itself, the great Dreadnought Hoax commenced.
The idea was first suggested to Cole by a naval officer, who wanted to make a point about the honor of the Navy, but also secretly wished to play a practical joke on another officer, who happened to be a cousin of Stephen’s and the chief command officer on the battleship HMS Dreadnought, the flagship of the prestigious Channel Fleet under Admiral Sir William Wordsworth Fisher’s command. The idea was this:
Cole, Stephen, and a troupe of hoaxers they recruited — which included British soldier and author Anthony Buxton, painter and textile designer Duncan Grant, barrister Cecil Guy Ridley, and Virginia Woolf — would present themselves as the Emperor of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) and his posse and pay a royal visit to inspect the battleship. Cole would pose as a young gentleman from the Foreign Office, Stephen as the interpreter, Buxton as the Emperor, and the rest as his royal suite. Stephen recounts the accouterments:
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.
And so they proceeded just as before: They sent the Admiral a telegram to expect them and set off. On the train, Cole attempted to teach Stephen a few words of Swahili — the only East African language they could find, never mind that it wasn’t spoken in Abyssinia. Stephen could hardly remember more than two words but — for a taste of how deftly newspapers manipulate the “news” — he recounts that several later reported that the group spoke “fluent Abyssinian.”
Once they disembarked the train, a naval officer in full uniform greeted them and the hoax thus began. Stephen speaks to a curious tendency of human nature, which shares a foundation with the psychology of trust and the rationalization of dishonesty:
By the time we reached the Dreadnought, the expedition had become for me at any rate almost an affair of every day. It was hardly a question any longer of a hoax. We were almost acting the truth. Everyone was expecting us to act as the Emperor and his suite, and it would have been extremely difficult not to do so … and we almost, I think, believed in the hoax ourselves.
Still, the dangers of being exposed began rolling in almost immediately. An unexpected one came when Stephen realized that the captain of the ship was someone he knew: They both belonged to a small club that took country walks on Sundays, and they had spent whole days together on several occasions. But thanks to “the naval officers’ proverbial tact” and their cordiality, Stephen wasn’t examined closely enough to be found out, so the inspection of the ship proceeded.
A second hazard emerged when the Admiral asked Stephen to translate something about the fleet’s use for “the Emperor,” at which point Stephen’s non-grasp of non-Swahili paralyzed him for a moment. But he recovered swiftly thanks to his education, as he points out with the delightful self-derision that elite schooling tends to engender:
I don’t find it easy to speak fluent gibberish impromptu. . . . I must somehow produce something that would not be too jerky, and too implausible. After a pause I began again as follows: “Tahli bussor ahbat tahl aesque miss. Erraema, fleet use…” and so on. My language may have sounded a bit odd, but at any rate I could be fluent enough. When I was a boy I spent years on what is called a classical education, and now I found a use for it. It was the habit in the middle forms of my school to learn by heart the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid as “repetition” I was able, therefore, to repeat whole stretches of it, and I knew a good deal of Homer in the same way. I was provided by my education, then, with a fine repertory of nonsense and did not have to fall back entirely on my own invention. I had to take care that neither the Latin nor the Greek should be recognized … so I broke up the words and so mispronounced them that probably they would have escaped notice even of the best scholar. The quotation that I started with by the way is from the Aeneid, Book IV, Line 437.
Buxton, meanwhile, was also very quick in picking up some of Stephen’s phrases and using them in his replies as they continued to tour the ship, “inspecting” the equipment and the cutting-edge “wireless room,” the Navy’s pride and joy, which Stephen continued to duly describe to the “Emperor” in a mixture of Homer and Virgil.
Another difficulty arose when the officers, in their extreme hospitality, insisted that the Abyssinians eat and drink at a lavish lunch. The hoaxers, worried that their already deteriorating makeup would falter — “Duncan’s mustache was beginning to peel off,” Stephen notes — cleverly abated disaster by saying that the royal family can only touch food prepared in certain ways. They were equally cunning when a budding breeze and drizzle threatened their makeup. Stephen, with diplomatic subtleness, mentioned to the captain the disparity between the heat of Abyssinian climate and the chill of England. The captain took the hint immediately and escorted the group downstairs.
Still, even knee-deep in this epic prank, the hoaxers had a sense of right and wrong when it came to how far they would go. When the Admiral insisted a military salute for the “Emperor,” which required that the ship fire its enormous guns, Stephen thought of how much work the cleaning of the guns would require later and thought it “too much of a shame to cause such unnecessary trouble,” so he refused the salute, passing it off as a grand gesture of benevolence on behalf of the “Emperor.”
The group spent the rest of the day on the ship — the hoax had been a success. On the train back, they devoured their dinner still in costume, thinking that the adventure was over. They had agreed not to tell the newspapers. (Cue in another reminder of how different things were before the age of the social web and ubiquitous smartphone cameras.) But they hadn’t anticipated what happened next. Stephen recounts:
We had a photograph taken of ourselves in our fancy dress as a memento, and one day walking in the street I saw this reproduced on the poster of (I think) the Mirror. I believe that was how I first realized that someone had given the story away, and I have never felt the slightest doubt that it was Cole who did it, and he would certainly never contradict it.
After this we heard nothing more for some time, till one day walking with Cole near the top of Sloane Street, I saw [the Dreadnought captain] and his wife. He saw us, too, and recognized us and pretended at first to be horrified and then to call a policeman. After a second or two, though, he began to laugh and, in fact, took the whole affair in the best of good humors.
But not all officers did. One Sunday morning several weeks later, Stephen’s cousin — whom the naval officers that originated the idea had sought to prank — showed up at Stephen’s house with a grim expression, saying that questions had been asked in Parliament, demanding that Stephen and his co-conspirators apologize, and asking for the names of the others, which Stephen sheepishly provided. It turned out, however, that his cousin was less concerned with the Parliament than with the word on the street: The hoax had gone “viral” in the press and one newspaper published an interview with a man who claimed to have witnessed the Abyssinians’ visit and alleged that they had used the expression “Bunga Bunga.” The phrase quickly became a “meme” of the pre-meme era — it made its way into song lyrics and, to the cousin’s extreme distress, into the mouths of little boys in the streets of the town, who would shout “Bunga Bunga” as a mockery.
The Navy set out to conduct its own revenge on the hoaxers. Cole received a visit from Stephen’s cousin and another naval officer, which turned out at least as comical and absurd as the hoax itself and illustrates, once again, the strange double standards of our moral sense of justice and injustice. Stephen recounts it with the same light-hearted mockery of authority that had inspired the hoax in the first place:
Cole received them in his sitting room, and they announced that they had come to avenge the honor of the Navy. They proposed to achieve this by beating him with a cane. In ordinary circumstances there would probably have been a free fight, and as Cole was pretty formidable, and as his manservant had scented trouble and was waiting outside the door in case he was needed, there is no telling who would have won. There was one thing which complicated matters, though. Cole was only just recovering from an illness which would have made violent exercise rather a serious danger. This was pointed out to the officers, and it put them in a dilemma. This was the third week-end, they said, that they had journeyed up to London to avenge the Navy, and they could not be foiled again. Eventually Cole made a proposal: he would agree to be beaten if he was allowed to reply in kind. This was agreed to, and the whole party adjourned to a quiet back street [where] six ceremonial taps were administered to Cole’s hindquarters, and six ceremonial taps were administer by him in return.
After this the Navy’s honor was at least partly cleared, and the two sides shook hands and parted.
How charmingly British indeed.
The next day, Duncan also received a visit. Per Stephen’s amused account, the officers “asked [him] whether he was ill, fearing [perhaps] a repetition of the night before.” They were also befuddled by the fact that Duncan wasn’t resisting at all — one officer remarked, “He does not put up any fight. You can’t cane a chap like that.” Stephen writes:
In the end it proved that they could cane a chap like that, but only with some difficulty. My cousin was unable to do it himself, but he could order his inferior officer to do so and the inferior officer could carry out his orders. Duncan, then, received two ceremonial taps, also, and the little party broke up. It so happened, though, that Duncan had only his bedroom slippers on, and no hat, and this so distressed the officers that they pressed him to accept a lift home.
“You can’t go home like that,” they said, but Duncan felt it less embarrassing to travel home by tube.
Of course, the story of the avenge is so absurd that it sounds like a Lewis Carroll tale — perhaps we should consider the estimation of myth vs. reality in the context of who is telling the story: a masterful prankster who went on to become a psychoanalyst. But even so, at the end of the book Stephen makes sure his irreverence isn’t misinterpreted and writes rather generously — assuming he is being earnest rather than sarcastic:
I should be so sorry, indeed, if anything I wrote were taken as intended to cast doubts on the bravery of naval officers. These men have very particular feelings on this point. Bravery is as much a matter of professional pride to them as it is the quality of his potatoes to a green-grocer. I should be sorry without the strongest reasons to cast doubts on either.
As for “revenge,” if [the Navy officers] wanted any they had already had plenty before the hoax was over. They treated us so delightfully while we were on board that I, for one, felt very uncomfortable at mocking, even in the friendliest spirit, such charming people.
As for Woolf, she was spared punishment and rarely mentioned the hoax. She only used it once in her writing, as inspiration for the short story “A Society.” In Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Bell cites a letter his aunt sent to composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth when the Admiral died in June of 1937:
Yes, I’m sorry about William — our last meeting was on the deck of the Dreadnought in 1910, I think; but I wore a beard. And I’m afraid he took it to heart a good deal. . . “
Still, Woolf continued to cherish the fun of it. In 1940, she called it “the most daring hoax in history” as she recounted it in a lecture at the Women’s Institute in Rodmell, the effect of which E.M. Forster captured perfectly in saying that it left the audience “helpless with laughter.” Even so, for Woolf — who challenged and subverted gender norms in both her revolutionary fiction and her private life — there was more to the hoax. Bell writes of his aunt:
She had entered the Abyssinian adventure for the fun of the thing; but she came out of it with a new sense of the brutality and silliness of men.