Virginia Woolf, Inveterate Prankster

I'm sure some of you looked at that headline and went, huh? Virginia Woolf? Not a woman associated with a sense of humor, to be true. But she is the 2nd from the right in the picture above (beard and all), in the middle of a legendary prank that scandalized London and even had diplomatic consequences.

The "Dreadnought Hoax" was the brainchild of Horace de Vere Cole and was carried out by himself, Woolf (then Stephens), her brother, and two others who go on to be part of the Bloomsbury Group. Four dressed as Abyssinian royals, while Adrian Stephens played the role of the interpreter.

To start off with, Cole sent a telegram to the H.M.S Dreadnought that the Crown Prince of Abyssinia and three of his most trusted advisors were making an unexpected tour of the ship, and Admiral was ordered to greet them warmly and in high style. The Dreadnought had great standing as a symbol of Britain's military might, so offered a tempting target to this group of pacifists.

The group then went to Paddington Station, where Cole posed as "Herbert Cholmondeley" of the Foreign Office, and managed to score the group a VIP coach to Weymouth, where the Dreadnought was moored.

Once they arrived in Weymouth, the fun really started.

As the Daily Mirror reported at the time (the hoax was not revealed until significantly later): "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."

However, the group couldn't find an Abyssinian flag, so they substituted the Zanzibar flag instead.

The group were given an exhaustive tour of the fleet. Only Stephens spoke in English (in his capacity as translator), and then he communicated to the others in bastardized Latin (intentionally misquoted passages from the Aeneid). The three male 'royals' frequently shouted 'bunga bunga' in approval of what they saw, from lifeboats to uniforms to electric light bulbs. (Virginia would intermittently mutter "chuck-a--choi, chuck-a-choi," as she felt those syllables better covered her female voice.) The group managed to fool the best and brightest of Her Majesty's Navy, who were even thrilled at the fake awards they were given by the group. Embarrassment upon embarrassment, one of the fooled Navy men knew both Virginia and Horace socially.

Upon their return to London, they were stilled greeted with oohs, ahhs and general adoration.

The prank was never discovered. In fact, the truth only came out because Cole sent a scathing letter to the Daily Mirror, with the picture above, detailing the group's triumph. Scandal ensued; various public officials called for arrests, caning, and more egregious forms of violence. But the only actual crime was the forged telegram originally sent to the ship.

The Navy became a total laughing stock. Children would approach them on the street and shout BUNGA BUNGA. The ship was sent out to sea due to the humiliation and wasn't allowed to return until the whole affair blew over. The real Abyssinian Prince came to visit England a few months later and requested to see the Navy, and was denied. But in a lovely twist, the H.M.S Dreadnought sank a German submarine in WWI, and received an anonymous telegram that said, you guessed it, "Bunga Bunga."

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2 Responses to “ Virginia Woolf, Inveterate Prankster ”

  1. So maybe this is a bit out there but I actually did think Virginia Woolf can be pretty funny. Well, I didn't, but then I read Orlando and the things she says in there as the taking the piss biographical narrator person actually made me laugh out loud at some points.

  2. Orlando is quite witty, and actually her personal diaries are quite funny! But I think most people have only read her short stories, which are extremely dark, or they try and fail at To The Lighthouse.


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