The Bunga Bunga hoax, 1910
It may be hard to believe these days but there was once a time when the British navy ruled the waves. The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, then the fastest, best armed and strongest ship ever built, seemed to cement the country’s position. When the battleship visited London in 1909 it , was greeted by a million people and the nation was swept with Dreadnought fever. It was an opportunity too good for advertising copywriters to miss, prompting some excruciating punning. The 1910 advert for Oxo cubes invited its fans to “drink Oxo and dread nought” and a firm of tailors clearly cut its suits from the same cloth, exhorting its clientele to “dreadnought and wear British clothing”.
This epitome of patriotic pride was too good a target for a pricker of pomposity to miss and this is where the Bloomsbury Group, a collective of thinkers, writers and artists with pacifist inclinations, comes in. Half a dozen of them, including Virginia Woolf, her brother, Adrian Stephen, and the poet, William Horace de Vere Cole, were persuaded, possibly by some friends from another British ship, the Hawke, who were envious of the publicity the Dreadnought was attracting, to get on board the vessel, dressed as members of the Abyssinian royal family.
A theatrical costumier was hired to dress them up in flowing kaftans, turbans and sumptuous jewellery. Their faces were painted a darker colour and various false hairpieces were attached to their faces, even to the redoubtable Virginia. A telegram, on February 7, 1910, purportedly from Harding of the Foreign Office, was sent to the Commander-in-Chief informing him that Prince Makelen of Abyssinia and his entourage had arrived in Weymouth and were desirous of visiting the Dreadnought.
The party went to Paddington station where Cole, posing as Herbert Cholmondeley of the FO, demanded free travel to Weymouth. The obliging railway company provided a VIP coach. On arrival at their destination, the party was met with a red carpet and a brass band playing the national anthem of Zanzibar, they being unable to lay their hands on the score for the Abyssinian one. They boarded the Dreadnought and were shown around, Stephen Adrian acting as interpreter, whilst the hoaxers communicated amongst themselves in a made-up language of Latin, Swahili and gobbledygook, and the occasional exclamation of “Bunga, bunga!”
The group declined lunch, claiming that the food would not have been prepared to their exacting requirements although, in reality, they were concerned that their makeup and falsies would come off. As it was, one of the moustaches started peeling off but, astonishingly, none of the naval personnel seemed to notice. Writing about it to a friend the next day, Cole reported, “It was glorious! Shriekingly funny – I nearly howled when introducing the four princes to the admiral and then to the captain, for I made their names up in the train, but I forgot which was which, and introduced them under various names, but it did not matter! They were tremendously polite and nice – couldn’t have been nicer: one almost regretted the outrage on their hospitality.”
News of the hoax, though, soon leaked out to the press, questions were asked in Parliament, King Edward VII was outraged, particularly as a woman was a member of the party, and arrangements for state visits of naval vessels were tightened up, hardly difficult to do, I would have thought. But the legacy of the hoax and the humiliation of the top brass of the Dreadnought lived on.
In the music halls that year, a song about the incident proved popular; “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!”
But the navy struck back. Some members of the group were apprehended by some ratings from the ship and were subjected to a ritual caning, which, given the sexual proclivities of the group, they may well have enjoyed. And when the Dreadnought became the first, and only, ship to ram and sink a German submarine, in 1915, the crew received a congratulatory telegram from their superiors, containing just two words. Inevitably, they were Bunga, bunga.
If you enjoyed this, take a look at Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone