Hoaxes and Pranks

The Time Virginia Woolf Scammed the British Navy


Virginia Woolf Dreadnought Hoax

The “delegation” of the Abyssinian royal family (lower right) pictured during their tour of the HMS Dreadnought. Virginia Woolf is seated on the far left of the photograph.

The pride and joy of the British Navy was the HMS Dreadnought, its most powerful battleship. That’s why, despite the last-minute notice, the ship’s commander was only too happy to accommodate a tour for the Prince of Abyssinia and his entourage.

The date of February 7, 1910. The sailors of the Dreadnought were dressed in their finest and stood at attention as the Abyssinian delegation boarded the ship for their tour. Dressed in the traditional Abyssinian attire, the royal visitors bowed and repeated said, “Bunga, Bunga!” to express their appreciation at the courtesy.  The forty-minute tour ended with a formal playing of “God Save the King” before the delegation disembarked.

There was just one problem. The visitors were not Abyssinian royalty. They were young, upper-class pranksters, who darkened their faces, forged an official-looking telegram and invented the nonsensical language they spoke while touring the ship. Among these pranksters was a young Virginia Stephen, who would later be known as the famous author Virginia Woolf.

When word of the hoax got out, the British newspapers were merciless. “Bunga Bunga,” proclaimed the headlines in the Western Daily Mercury, along with a picture of the royal delegation. Members of the Dreadnought crew were greeted with cries of “Bunga Bunga!” wherever they went. It got to be so bad that the Navy deployed the Dreadnought to sea until the episode blew over.




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