On this day in history, what is possibly the greatest prank ever was pulled off. And its victim was none less than one of the world's most venerable military forces, the Royal Navy.
To set the backdrop:
In 1910 the HMS Dreadnought was the first of a whole new type of battleship. She was, at the time, the most advanced, powerful, weapon of war ever built. The 1910 equivalent of a top-secret nuclear ballistic missile submarine.
The joke started in the mind of Horace de Vere Cole, a poet and notorious prankster. An example of his humor was this: An old schoolfriend had just been elected to Parliament. While walking together through London, Cole challenged him to a foot race, then let him get ahead. Unbeknownst to the friend, Cole had slipped his gold watch into his jacket pocket, and as he chased him yelled, "Stop! Thief!" The friend was detained by police until Cole explained it was a joke. Another time he purchased theater tickets for all his bald friends- and he'd chosen their seats specifically so that their heads spelled out an obscenity when viewed from the balcony.
But I digress.
Cole recruited 5 friends from a circle of writers and artists to help him, including Virginia Stephen - who'd later become famed novelist Virginia Woolf.
On February 7, 1910, HMS Dreadnought was moored in Portland Harbor, Dorset. Cole had a forged telegram, allegedly from the UK government's foreign office, sent to her commander. It said they'd be receiving a visiting delegation of princes from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), and to offer them all courtesies.
4 of Cole's accomplices put on heavy blackface make-up, glue-on beards, and elaborate theatrical costumes. Cole went as "Herbert Cholmondeley" of the UK's foreign office, and the 6th participant (Adrian Stephen, Virginia's brother) went as a translator.
|The fake Abyssinian delegation: Virginia Woolf is on the far left, her brother Adrian in the bowler hat at center, and Horace de Vere Cole at the right.|
With this group behind him, Cole marched into London's Paddington Station and, claiming to be a government officer, demanded a train be immediately prepared to take them to the Dreadnought. The impressed railway employees gave him a VIP coach with private staff.
Meanwhile, in Weymouth, frantic British officers organized an honor guard to greet the train. To their horror, nowhere in the Royal Navy's music list or flag collection was there anything for Abyssinia. So the band was given the national anthem of Zanzibar instead, and hung the Zanzibar flag, hoping the visitors wouldn't notice (they didn't).
The group was welcomed with full military honors, and inspected the anchored fleet. The highlight came when they boarded and toured the magnificent Dreadnought herself. Enemy spies had spent years trying to ascertain her technical details, and here the Royal Navy was willingly escorting a group of costumed literary goofballs on board and showing them around.
As they walked up the gangplank it started to rain, and to their horror the make-up began to run. Cole rushed the group inside before anyone noticed, explaining that royalty shouldn't get wet.
During the tour, the Abyssinian princes excitedly chattered in a nonsensical foreign tongue, which was a random, improvised, combination of Greek, Latin, and gibberish. Adrian Stephen made up questions as they went along, and "translated" them (and the answers) back and forth. The group exclaimed "Bunga! Bunga!" at things that were particularly impressive. This so struck nearby sailors that it entered British lexicon for a time, and was recently (2011) resurrected in Italy referring to the behavior of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
While on the train ride, Cole had created names for each of the 4 "princes," but forgot who was who during the tour. So their names changed from minute-to-minute. The naval officers didn't notice. At one point they were guided by an officer who was a cousin of Virginia and Adrian Stephen, and who also knew Cole personally, yet he didn't recognize them (and Adrian & Cole weren't even in costume!).
As their tour ended the members tried to bestow the "Order of Abyssinia" medal on several officers (actually a cheap trinket Cole had bought en route). The Dreadnought's cooks had prepared a special meal for them, but they declined to eat, with Cole stating that for religious reasons they were concerned the food wasn't prepared correctly (the real reason was that eating or drinking would ruin the make-up and fake beards).
The group were again saluted by the honor guards and Zanzibar national anthem as they left, boarding the train back to London.
A few days later Cole leaked the story, complete with photos, to the London newspapers. It became front page news. The Royal Navy was horrified, and the mighty Dreadnought was promptly dispatched on "machinery trials" until the mess blew over. British sailors were greeted in the streets with "Bunga! Bunga!" and Parliament tightened regulations on ceremonial visits. The navy threatened to have the perpetrators caned, but in the end no one was punished.
Several months later the real Emporer of Ethiopia, Menelik II, came to England, and the navy turned down his request to visit the fleet to avoid embarrassment (perhaps they still hadn't found a flag or national anthem).
A final note came in 1915, during World War I. The Dreadnought rammed and sank a German U-Boat, and after returning to port her captain received an anonymous telegram that simply said "Bunga! Bunga!"