Dreadnoughts and the Royal Navy
In the early 20th century, Britain’s naval fleet was seen as one of the foundations of its empire, and a reflection of the country’s power and wealth. As Britain was portrayed in books, plays and popular culture as an island nation, the Royal Navy was seen as the defender of the island, and its first line of defence. A leading article in The Observer in 1909 described the supremacy of the Royal Navy as “the best security for the world’s peace and advancement”.
HMS Dreadnought, the first of Britain’s “dreadnought” class of battleship, entered into Royal Navy service in 1906. Dreadnought was the most technologically advanced ship that had been built; it was better armed, faster and stronger than any other vessel afloat. According to the historian Jan Rüger, from the time the ship was launched, it took on cultural significance as a symbol and entered into public consciousness through songs and advertising. When the ship visited London in 1909—part of three fleet reviews held—a million people were estimated to have watched its arrival, and by 1910 it “had become a cultural icon with undeniable symbolic status”. Rüger gives examples of advertising for Oxo stock cubes: “Drink OXO and dread nought”; a tailoring business that used the slogan “Dreadnought and wear British clothing”; and “Dreadnought trams” ran, styled as battleships, and complete with imitation guns. The cultural historian Elisa deCourcy describes the Dreadnought as having “a near sacrosanct nature” for the Edwardians.
In February 1910 the captain of Dreadnought was Herbert Richmond; Admiral Sir William May was the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet; as such, Dreadnought was his flagship. Also present on Dreadnought was Commander Willie Fisher—the Stephens’ cousin—who was on the staff of the Admiral.
In a talk given in 1940 Woolf described how, in 1910, young naval officers enjoyed playing practical jokes on one another:
- the officers of the Hawke and the Dreadnought had a feud. … And Cole’s friend who was on the Hawke had come to Cole, and said to him, “You’re a great hand at hoaxing people; couldn’t you do something to pull the leg of the Dreadnought? They want taking down a bit. Couldn’t you manage to play off one of your jokes against them?”
This involved Cole and five friends—writer Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf), her brother Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton and artist Duncan Grant—who had themselves disguised by the theatrical costumier Willy Clarkson with skin darkeners and turbans to resemble members of the Abyssinian royal family. The main limitation of the disguises was that the “royals” could not eat anything or their make-up would be ruined. Adrian Stephen took the role of “interpreter”.
On 7 February 1910 Clarkson’s employees visited Woolf’s home and applied the stage make-up to Woolf, Grant, Buxton and Ridley, then provided eastern robes. According to the Daily Mirror, they were also wearing £500 of jewellery; Martin Downer, in his biography of Cole, doubts the amount, which is not repeated by any of the participants.
A friend of Stephen’s sent a telegram to the “C-in-C, Home Fleet” stating that “Prince Makalen of Abbysinia [sic] and suite arrive 4.20 today Weymouth. He wishes to see Dreadnought. Kindly arrange meet them on arrival”; the message was signed “Harding Foreign Office”. Cole had found a post office that was staffed only by women, as he thought they were less likely to ask questions about the message. Cole with his entourage went to London’s Paddington station where Cole claimed that he was “Herbert Cholmondeley” of the Foreign Office and demanded a special train to Weymouth; the stationmaster arranged a VIP coach.
In Weymouth, the navy welcomed the princes with an honour guard. An Abyssinian flag was not found, so the navy proceeded to use that of Zanzibar and to play Zanzibar’s national anthem.
The group inspected the fleet. To show their appreciation, they communicated in a gibberish of words drawn from Latin and Greek; they asked for prayer mats and attempted to bestow fake military honours on some of the officers. Commander Fisher failed to recognise either of his cousins.
When the prank was uncovered in London, the ringleader Horace de Vere Cole contacted the press and sent a photo of the “princes” to the Daily Mirror. The group’s pacifist views were considered a source of embarrassment, and the Royal Navy briefly became an object of ridicule. The Navy later demanded that Cole be arrested. However, Cole and his compatriots had not broken any law. Instead, with the exception of Virginia Woolf, they were subjected to a symbolic thrashing on the buttocks by junior Royal Navy officers.
According to press reports, during the visit to Dreadnought, the visitors repeatedly showed amazement or appreciation by exclaiming “Bunga Bunga!” In 1915 during the First World War, HMS Dreadnought rammed and sank a German submarine—the only battleship ever to do so. Among the telegrams of congratulation was one that read “BUNGA BUNGA”
A song was heard in music halls that year, sung to the tune of “The Girl I Left Behind”
- When I went on board a Dreadnought ship
- I looked like a costermonger;
- They said I was an Abyssinian prince
- ‘Cos I shouted ‘Bunga Bunga!’