Virginia Woolf, the Dreadnought Hoax, and the origin of “Bunga! Bunga!”

Dreadnought hoax
Virginia Woolf is the figure on the  left.


On 7 February 1910, four men in long robes, accompanied by two in western dress, were received on board HMS Dreadnought, the flagship of the British Royal Navy and the most technologically advanced ship that had been built.

The six people were a group of friends, including writer Virginia Stephen ( later Virginia Woolf ), who was the only woman. They had darkened their skin and put on beards and costumes to disguise themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family. The main limitation of the camouflage was that they could not eat anything, in order not to ruin their make-up. They had been anticipated by a telegram stating that “Prince Makalen of Abyssinia” (today Ethiopia) and his entourage would come to inspect the ship.

The princes were welcomed with an honour guard, but since the Abyssinian flag was not found, the navy had to use that of Zanzibar. It was also discovered that the bandmaster didn’t know the anthem of Abyssinia, so they played a march which had a fairly regal sound, while the party acknowledged the greetings with deep bows.
When invited to dine with the officers they had to decline, stating that the food and drink had not been prepared correctly.
It goes without saying that the visitors were given a complete guided tour of the vessel. They were shown everything: the wireless, the guns and the torpedoes. At each new marvel they paused and shouted the appreciative phrase “Bunga, Bunga!” in their native tongue.
The following days, when the hoax was uncovered in London, the Royal Navy became an object of ridicule and sailors were greeted with cries of “Bunga, Bunga”, which even ended up in a music hall song that year.


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