On February 7th, 1910, one Herbert Cholmondesly of HMFO demanded a special train from London’s Paddington Station to convey four Abyssinian princes to Weymouth docks. In fact, the troupe who boarded HMS Dreadnought that morning were pranksters, recruited by the noted adventurer William Horace de Vere Cole, the ‘Cholmondesly of the FO’. Under the elaborate disguises as African potentates were novelist Virginia Woolf, sportsman Anthony Buxton, artist Duncan Grant and a judge’s son Guy Ridley. Their interpreter was Woolf’s brother Adrian. Red carpet and a guard of honour awaited them at Weymouth, with Admiral Sir William May himself welcoming the company.
When rain threatened their make-ups, the ‘princes’ requested the permission to inspect the ship. Inside, they overacted to a ludicrous degree: they handed out visiting cards printed in Swahili. Being at a loss of what to say, Buxton improvised Virgil’s Aeneid in a strange accent, lest the navy recognized Latin. They asked for prayer mats at sunset, and tried to bestow Abyssinian honours on senior officers. ‘Bunga-bunga,’ they exclaimed whenever they were shown some great aspect of the ship; this except Virginia Woolf who had to try hard to disguise her womanish voice.
Yet, their disguises were so good that an officer who knew both Woolf and Cole previously failed to recognized either. They had another close-shave when Buxton sneezed and one-half of his moustache flew off, but he stuck it back again before anyone noticed. (The Navy too had its own faux pas: as the Abyssinian flag could not be found, the flag of Zanzibar was flown instead!)
The next day Cole sent the above picture and the details of his hoax (which cost him some 4,000 pounds) to the Daily Mail. It was anonymous, of course, but the Parliament and the public were outraged at this audacity: Dreadnought was, after all, the royal navy’s latest and best ship. When the identities were finally revealed, it contributed greatly to the fame of Woolf’s nascent Bloomsbery Group.
The only loser from this affair, it appeared, was the Abyssinian Emperor Menelik II. When he visited the country next, he was greeted by the howlers of ‘Bunga, bunga’ and denied the permission to visit any ship by the cautious navy which didn’t want a repeat of the embarrassing affair. For Cole, it was the climax of an adventurous, if not childish, life. At Cambridge, he dressed as the Sultan of Zanzibar. Later, he capitalized on his resemblance to Ramsay MacDonald by arranging for the Labour leader to be temporarily ‘lost’ in a tax in the London traffic while Cole went to a party meeting in his disguise and gave a speech, telling the workers to work more for less. But with the coming of the Great Depression, he was bankrupted; he died penniless and forgotten in 1936 at the age of 50 in France, where his antics went virtually unnoticed.