Virginia Woolf and Friends Dress Up as “Abyssinian Princes” and Fool the British Royal Navy (1910)


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On Feb­ru­ary 7th, 1910, Vir­ginia Woolf (then Vir­ginia Stephen) and five of her Blooms­bury companions—painter Dun­can Grant, Woolf’s broth­er Adri­an, Antho­ny Bux­ton, Guy Rid­ley, and Horace de Vere Cole—boarded the pride of the British Roy­al Navy, the HMS Dread­nought, dressed in black­face and out­landish stage cos­tumes. (In the pho­to above, from left to right.) In what became known as “The Dread­nought Hoax,” the six con­vinced the Dread­nought’s offi­cers that they were the “Emper­or of Abyssinia” (now Ethiopia) and his entourage, and they were received with high hon­ors.

The hoax, mas­ter­mind­ed by Cole, began when he sent a telegram to the ship telling the crew to expect a vis­it from some North African dig­ni­taries. Once on board, the group spoke in accent­ed Latin (quot­ing the Aeneid) and gib­ber­ish. Woolf kept qui­et so as to dis­guise her gen­der. One of the offi­cers on the ship was a cousin of Vir­ginia and Adri­an, but he failed to rec­og­nize them. It wasn’t a flaw­less per­for­mance on either side: at one point, Bux­ton sneezed and almost lost his mus­tache, and the Navy, unable to find an Abyssin­ian flag, flew the flag of Zanz­ibar instead.

The “princes” asked for prayer mats, pre­sent­ed the offi­cers with fake mil­i­tary hon­ors, and exclaimed “bun­ga, bun­ga!” each time they were shown some mar­vel of the ship. The Dread­nought was then, in the words of Woolf’s nephew and biog­ra­ph­er, Quentin Bell, “the flag­ship of the Home Fleet, the most for­mi­da­ble, the most mod­ern, and the most secret man o’ war then afloat.” (This inci­dent is said to be the ori­gin of the ludi­crous phrase “bun­ga, bun­ga,” most asso­ci­at­ed with the exploits of the recent­ly con­vict­ed Sil­vio Berlus­coni.) The next day, Cole anony­mous­ly sent the pho­to­graph at the top to The Dai­ly Mir­ror, reveal­ing the hoax. Accord­ing to Woolf schol­ar Mairead Case—who sees the inci­dent as a pre­cur­sor to Woolf’s gen­der-bend­ing nov­el Orlan­do—the Mir­ror described the “Abyssini­ans” thus:

All the princes wore vari-coloured silk sash­es as tur­bans, set off with dia­mond aigrettes, white gib­bah tunics, over which were cast rich flow­ing robes and round their necks were sus­pend­ed gold chains and jew­eled neck­laces … They also all wore patent leather boots which, Ori­en­tal fash­ion, tapered to a point, the ends pro­ject­ing ful­ly six inch­es beyond the toes. White gloves cov­ered the princes’ hands, and over the gloved fin­gers, they wore gold wed­ding rings – heavy, plain cir­clets, which looked very impres­sive.


In a recent­ly dis­cov­ered let­ter, Cole wrote to a friend that the hoax was “glo­ri­ous” and “shriek­ing­ly fun­ny.” The group intend­ed to mock what they saw as an out­mod­ed Vic­to­ri­an impe­ri­al­ism, and they suc­ceed­ed, at least in the pop­u­lar press. The Mir­ror pub­lished the car­toon above and the Roy­al Navy was a laugh­ing­stock for weeks after­ward. None of this pseu­do-racist prankster­ism (which reflect­ed just as bad­ly on the offi­cers) struck the actu­al Emper­or of Ethiopia—Mene­lik II—as par­tic­u­lar­ly fun­ny. When he vis­it­ed Eng­land lat­er that year, he was taunt­ed in the streets by chil­dren shout­ing “Bun­ga! Bun­ga!” and denied per­mis­sion to inspect the navy’s fleet for fear that his vis­it might cause fur­ther embar­rass­ment.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Pat­ti Smith Read from Vir­ginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Sur­viv­ing Record­ing of Woolf’s Voice

Look­ing Inside Darwin’s Room (and Also Where Vir­ginia Woolf, Lord Byron, & Kipling Did Their Thing)

F. Scott Fitzger­ald in Drag (1916)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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