The Dreadnought Hoax, a practical joke at the British Navy’s expense, occurred on this day in 1910. Among the conspirators was Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) and, though she played only a minor Abyssinian potentate, she afterward expressed pride in her contribution: “I am glad to think that I too have been of help to my country.”
The most detailed account we have of the fun was written decades later by Adrian Stephen, Virginia’s younger brother and one of the Hoax masterminds. The idea came from Horace Cole, who with his college friends several years earlier had similarly duped the mayor of Cambridge by dressing up as the sultan of Zanzibar and entourage. For this new and more daring leg-pull — the Dreadnought, just three years old, was the Navy’s showcase ship — the pranksters became the emperor of Abyssinia and his retinue. Their last-minute telegram to the Navy announcing their arrival and intention was sent only after they had left Paddington Station — Cole and Stephen now studying Swahili in the train’s luncheon car (this from a grammar text provided by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), the rest of the group gathering their beards and nerves in a compartment.
The red carpet was on the dock, the marines saluted, the band played — the Anthem of Zanzibar, it turned out, but appropriate enough given the earlier prank. Having accepted the admiral’s apology that the only sailor who knew the Abyssinian language was on leave, the group chatted away in pidgin Swahili. Apart from a few slipping moustaches, the joke came off without a hitch, and the group returned to London in high spirits.
Cole, unable to keep the fun under his hat, leaked the story to the Daily Mail, and soon the entire nation was enjoying the joke. But then questions were raised in Parliament about the nation’s security and the admiral’s competence, and soon some naval personnel intent on rough justice were knocking on several Bloomsbury doors. One of the hoaxsters, the artist Duncan Grant, was bundled off in a cab, taken to a field, and given two ceremonial taps of a cane. Cole was given six taps on his bum, though after negotiation and in the British spirit of fair play he was allowed to administer six taps to the naval bums also.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.