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  • Gavin Whitehead

Before Borat: The Deadnought Hoax

In 1910, four Abyssinian royals toured the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the most technologically advanced ship in the British Royal Navy. Afterward, however, it leaked to the press that the captain and crew of the vessel had been duped: they had given a tour not to foreign dinitaries but British citizens. The Dreadnought affair caused a minor scandal, and what started as a practical joke threatened to end in legal repercussions for the hoaxers. Full transcript below.

Above: 1910 photograph of the Dreadnought hoaxers in costume. This picture circulated in the press after word of the hoax got out. Virginia Woolf is seated on the far left.



As I mentioned a few weeks back, season 3 of The Art of Crime kicks off in early January, and I hope you’re as excited as I am about it. But January’s still a whole month away, and I didn’t want to leave you without any content for the rest of 2023. So I’ve come up with what I call the “Rabbit Hole” series. As you might remember from this season’s Ask Me Anything episode, one listener asked if I found myself going down rabbit holes as I research The Art of Crime. (Shoutout to Nikki, by the way. You rock!) Anyway, this question inspired me to create the “Rabbit Hole” series. It’s pretty simple. For each of the next three Wednesdays, I’m going to release a bite-sized episode, in which I tell a memorable story I found out about while making an episode but had to cut from the final product for one reason or another. Today, I’m going to tell you about a bizarre historical footnote I discovered way back when I was putting together season 1 of this podcast. For those who haven’t listened, it’s called The Unusual Suspects: Artists Accused of Being Jack the Ripper. Anyway, when I read about this, I was like, “What, what, what?” and I hope you leaves you equally incredulous.

On February 7, 1910, the seaside town of Weymouth, England, was abuzz. Residents flocked to the local train station in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a distinguished foreign visitor: Prince Makalen of Abyssinia, a North African territory encompassing modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Prince was accompanied by three other members of the Abyssinian royal family. Joining the royal entourage were two Britons, the first a representative from the Foreign Office and the second an interpreter. The foreign royals came to Weymouth to tour the HMS Dreadnought, the flagship of the British naval fleet overseen by Admiral Sir William May. The ship itself was under the command of Captain Herbert Richmond. The Drednought had made its first voyage in 1906, emerging as the strongest, fastest, and most technologically advanced ship in Britain. Because of its sophistication, the Drednought embodied the might and glory of the British navy—and by extension the British empire. Captain Richmond received the foreign dignitaries onboard in the late afternoon and escorted them around the ship before sending them back ashore. Though it initially appeared to be an unqualified success, this royal visit would soon cause a minor scandal, when it was revealed that Admiral May and Captain Richmond had been duped. None of the foreign dignitaries who toured the vessel hailed from Abyssinia. Every last one of them was British—and in disguise. The incident became known as the “Dreadnought Hoax”. The public response to this practical joke was lighthearted at first but quickly stirred the ire and concern of various officials, becoming the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry. Today, we’ll discuss how the British Navy got so thoroughly punked and why the ruse caused such an uproar. Right up front, though, I should say that the main reason I’m telling this story is that you will never guess which historical artist took part in this scheme. 

Neither of the masterminds of the Dreadnought Hoax were the artist in question. Instead, they were Horace de Verre Cole and Adrian Stephen, who had befriended each other as Cambridge undergraduates. The two had pulled off similar pranks in the past, and Cole, in particular, was notorious for engineering such gags. Another participant in the Dreadnought affair later explained that Cole came up with this practical joke when speaking with a friend who served as an officer aboard another ship, the HMS Hawke. As naval officers will, it turns out, the crews of the Dreadnought and the Hawke were waging a sort of prank war with each other, which inspired Cole’s friend to ask his trickster pal for a favor: “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?’” Cole straightaway enlisted the help of Stephen, and the Dreadnought affair was put into motion. 

The two lead pranksters assembled a team of accomplices that included three men and a single woman. These four individuals would don costumes and become the fictitious members of the Abyssinian royal family. Meanwhile, Cole and Stephen would impersonate the two officials from the British Foreign Office. In order to convince the Royal Navy to allow them onto the Dreadnought, one member of the crew went to the Post Office to send a false telegram to the Commander in Chief of the “Home Fleet”—the group of naval vessels in charge of defending Britain. The message purported to be from the Home Office and read, "Prince Makalen of Abbysinia and suite arrive 4.20 today. Weymouth. He wishes to see Dreadnought. Kindly arrange meet them on arrival." Upon receiving this telegram, the Navy asked no questions whatsoever and busily prepared a formal reception for the visiting dignitaries on last-minute notice.

Then, there was the most important detail to attend to: the costumes of the hoaxers. If you listened to season 1 of The Art of Crime, you can probably guess who they turned to for their outfits—the master of disguise himself: wigmaker and costume designer Willy Clarkson. Clarkson, you might recall, was the first of the six creators profiled in Season 1, which discussed the lives and careers of artists who, at one time or another, have been accused of being Jack the Ripper. I first found out about the Drednought hoax while I was researching the episode about Clarkson, but there wasn’t time to work it into the final product. 

Anyway, it was Clarkson’s employees who furnished Cole, Stephen, and the four Abyssinian royals with their wardrobe. When Stephen published a book about the hoax decades later, in 1936, he seemed to recall that Clarkson himself was present at the final fitting. This hazy recollection finds some support in newspaper accounts immediately following the hoax. On February 15, the Guernsey Evening Press ran a syndicated story based on an interview with an anonymous “manager” of Clarkson’s costume shop, who sounds suspiciously like Clarkson himself. This article contains the most detailed description of the extensive and labor involved in passing off this group of young British tricksters as African Royalty. Cole “was reckless in his expenditure” in preparing of the hoax, not to mention extremely demanding of Clarkson’s staff: “Dissatisfied with imitation jewellery, [Cole] went out and purchased quite 500 pounds worth of precious stones from a shop close by… [The astronomical sum of 500 pounds is contested, in case you’re wondering.] He demanded absolute accuracy in make-up, and we spent some days in procuring exactly what he wanted…The three young men and the young woman all had their hair cut short, and were fitted with black wooly mats which completely covered their skulls. They were provided with short, crisp, curly black beards…Their faces, arms and hands were dyed to the proper hue. They wore turbans and flowing robes.”

Seen from the perspective of the present moment, it’s all pretty cringeworthy, no doubt about it. But there’s a historical explanation as to why Cole and company went to a theatrical costumier like Clarkson for their disguises. Blackface performance was common both on and off the professional London stage in the early 1900s. In the context of professional playmaking, for instance, white actors wore blackface whenever they portrayed the title character of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello.

Attired in their disguises, the hoaxers headed to Weymouth by train. Upon disembarking from their carriage, the pranksters were astonished to find a full contingent of military personnel awaiting them. Stephen describes the elaborate nature of this official welcome in his 1936 book: “In spite of the short notice we had given, everything was ready for our reception. Inside the station a red carpet was laid down for us to walk on, and there was a barrier in position to keep sightseers at a proper distance...Then, as we came alongside and approached the ship’s gangway, the band struck up its music.”

With Cole was posing as the guy from the Foreign Office, and Stephen as the official interpreter, the royal entourage boarded the Dreadnought. As translator, Cole had perhaps the hardest part to play since he had to feign fluency in Abyssinian, not a word of which he knew. In preparation for his turn as the Abyssinian interpreter, Stephen had studied a few basic phrases not tin Abyssinian but instead in Swahili. When it came time for him to translate for the royals, however, he could only muster a few words of that African language. Panicking that he would blow their cover, he quickly contrived a solution. As part of his so-called classical education, Stephen had been forced to memorize lengthy passages from Virgil and Homer in the original Latin and Greek, respectively. Whenever Stephen had to communicate with the Abyssinians, he recited lines from these two poets, taking care to mispronounce words so his speech wouldn’t sound recognizably Latin or Greek. As for the solo woman involved, she later stated, “I spoke as little as possible in case my voice, which I made as gruff as I could, should fail me I found I could easily laugh like a man, but it was difficult to disguise my speaking voice.”

After word of the hoax got out, newspapers printed several inaccuracies about what was said among the Abyssinians and their interpreter. According to Stephen, at least one paper claimed they had spoken “fluent Abyssinian.” Clearly not. Others claimed that the Abyssinian princes had gone about the Dreadnought oohing and awing over everything they saw, from torpedoes to telegraphs, repeatedly uttering the phrase, “Bunga bunga.” According to Stephen, this was untrue. Still, it captured the public imagination, to the detriment of the Dreadnought’s officers. As Stephen observes in his book, “The words ‘Bunga-Bunga’ became public catchwords for a time, and were introduced as tags into music-hall songs and so forth. Apparently, the Admiral was unable to go on shore without having them shouted after him in the streets.”

As the hoaxers toured the ship, they faced near-catastrophe on more than one occasion. At one point, Stephen noticed that one of his fellow wag’s fake mustache was starting to peel. Then, it threatened to rain, and everyone freaked out about their face paint, which would smear. Despite these setbacks, the crew saw their practical joke through to the end. 

Word of the ruse leaked to the press—almost certainly through Cole. Much initial press coverage was lighthearted in tone. On February 15, The Daily Mirror proclaimed: “All England is smiling at the elaborate hoax perpetrated by the bogus Abyssinian princes on Admiral Sir William May…and the officers of his flagship, the Dreadnought. Even the officers who were so cleverly deceived are also relishing the joke. With that keen sense of humor which is one of the characteristics of the British naval service, they freely admit that the hoaxers scored heavily, and, far from bearing them any ill-will, they give them full credit for their successful and audacious trick.” It was furthermore reported that Cole was receiving mountains of letters from young English ladies, imploring him to participate in his next hoax. 

Before long, however, things started to look bled for Cole and Company. Members of Parliament, some of them furious, held an inquiry into the prank, hearing testimony from a man named McKenna, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Among the questions Parliament wanted to ask McKenna was whether he planned to prosecute the jokers for forgery. After all, they had transmitted a spurious telegram to lay the foundations for the prank. On February 27, Lloyd’s Weekly News quotes McKenna as saying: “The question is being considered as to whether any breach of law has been committed, and whether it can be brought home to the offenders.” Likely anticipating impending legal blowback, an anonymous associate of Willy Clarkson sought to distance the wigmaker and costume designer from the hoax in an interview: “We have often had to provide disguises for practical jokes on a small scale, but I think this is about the ‘limit.’ Of course, when we were approached, we had no ideas what the jesters had in their minds. It was simply our business to do the best we could for them in the way of make-up.”

There are two related reasons why the initially jocular reaction to the Dreadnought Hoax gave way to outrage and concern. Both have to do with the cultural symbolism of the British Navy. On the one hand, Great Britain’s identity as a nation and as an empire was firmly rooted in the idea of its supremacy over the waves. Negative reactions to the Abyssinian masquerade viewed its attack on the reputation of the Navy as an unpatriotic assault on Crown and Country. During the Parliamentary Inquiry, Colonel Amelius Richard Mark Lockwood, Conservative MP for Epping called the hoax “a direct insult to His Majesty’s flag,” a sentiment echoed by his colleagues with a round of “hear-hears”! The February 15th edition of the Western Mail clutched its pearls at the damage that the prank had supposedly done to Britain’s image on the international stage: “We may make up our minds to be laughed at abroad, and the caricaturists of France and Germany, especially Germany, will have a wild time.”

This article’s emphasis on Germany brings us to the second reason that the Dreadnought Hoax was upsetting to public authorities. To a surprising number of eyes, the pranking of the Navy constituted what we would now call “a national-security crisis,” particularly with regard to Germany, at the time Britain’s chief adversary in the struggle for naval supremacy. Indeed, the building of the H.M.S. Dreadnought was the outcome of an arms race with the German navy, one that kicked off in the 1890s. The idea that a falsified telegram could get a group of badly disguised pranksters aboard the mightiest ship of His Majesty’s Navy unsettled observers who worried about the rise of German naval power. 

If you want to get a sense of how pervasive such fears were in the decades leading up to the Dreadnought Hoax, look no further than the career of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In 1893—in the lead-up to the naval arms race between Britain and Germany—Holmes appeared in the short story “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty.” As its title suggests, the mystery concerns the theft of a secret naval treaty between Great Britain and Italy, on the part of an unnamed foreign country. Holmes tackles a similar case in “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”—published in 1908, just two years prior to the Dreadnought hoax. This time, Holmes must solve an ingenious murder related to the theft of top-secret plans for a British submarine. Like the cutting-edge design of the Dreadnought, the British foray into submarine-building was prompted by concerns about German naval advances. Indeed, politicians and military officials resisted investing in a fleet of submarines, viewing it as an underhanded approach to warfare unworthy of the British Navy’s heroic reputation. As the works of Conan Doyle make clear, state-of-the-art naval technologies like the Dreadnought were viewed as the guarantors of national security, which goes a long way in explaining why the perpetrators of the hoax stirred the indignation of powerful people who wanted to see them imprisoned. 

Luckily for the pranksters, there were ultimately no such legal repercussions. As Stephen relates, officers of the Navy contented themselves with ritualistically paddling the posteriors of several of the hoaxers. According to some sources, the Dreadnought affair also inspired the Royal Navy to improve security procedures, but other than that, it had no real lasting effects.

It has sometimes been suggested that Cole, Stephen, and the rest of these mischief makers targeted the Navy due to their pacifist politics. This claim is hard to substantiate given the testimony of the prank’s perpetrators. Stephen, for instance, appears to have considered the charade as nothing more than harmless fun, a cheekily anti-authoritarian gesture. Writing in the context of an earlier prank he pulled with Cole, Stephen writes, “[A]nyone who took up an attitude of authority over anyone else was necessarily also someone who offered a leg for everyone else to pull.”

But I’ve held off on revealing the detail that made my jaw hit the floor when I first read about the time a group of recent university graduates TOTALLY PWND the world’s mightiest navy. The woman who donned a prosthetic beard to play the part of one of the Abyssinian princes was Adrian Stephen’s sister, Virginia Stephen—later, Virginia Woolf. Like, the Virginia Woolf. In addition to the interview given to the Daily Mirror shortly after the hoax, Woolf gave a lecture about her involvement in 1940, of which only a few scattered pages survive.  I have to say, I did not expect to find the high-modernist author of such deathly serious and intellectually rigorous fiction as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of the most challenging and indeed visionary novels I have ever read, at the center of a pretty dumb if also kinda edgy prank at the expense of the British Royal Navy. I mean . . . I just didn’t know she had it in her. But hey, the more you know. In fact, writing this episode makes me want to reread both Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Maybe I should look into a biography, too. Well, I guess I know which audiobooks are getting added to the wishlist… 

That’s about all for the Dreadnought affair.



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