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Dreadnought Hoax

The Dreadnought Hoaxers in Abyssinian regalia
Virginia Woolf is the bearded figure on the far left

The Dreadnought Hoax was a practical joke pulled by Horace de Vere Cole in 1910. Cole tricked the Royal Navy into showing their flagship, the warship H.M.S. Dreadnought to a supposed delegation of Abyssinian royals.

The hoax involved Cole and five friends - future author Virginia Woolf, her brother Adrian Green, Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton and artist Duncan Grant - who dressed up in blackface and turbans to make them look oriental. Their only main fault was that the "royals" could not eat anything or their make-up would be ruined. Adrian Green took the role of "interpreter". The operation cost Cole 4000.

In February 10 1910 the trick began. Cole had an accomplice send a telegram to the HMS Dreadnought which was then moored in Weymouth. The message said that the ship must be prepared for the visit of a group of princes from Abyssinia and was signed by Foreign Under-secretary Sir Charles Hardinge.

Cole with his entourage went to London's Paddington Station where Cole claimed that he was "Herbert Cholmondesly" of the UK Foreign Office and demanded a special train to Weymouth. The stationmaster arranged a VIP coach.

In Weymouth, the navy welcomed the princes with an honor guard. Unfortunately, nobody had found an Abyssinian flag, so the navy proceeded to use that of Zanzibar and to play Zanzibar's national anthem. Their visitors did not appear to notice.

The group inspected the fleet. They gave cards printed in Swahili and talked with each other in a broken Latin. To show their appreciation, they yelled "bunga bunga". They asked for prayer mats and bestowed fake military honors to some of the officers. One officer familiar to both Cole and Woolf failed to recognize either one.

When they were departing by train, Anthony Buxton sneezed and blew off his false whiskers but managed to stick them back before anyone noticed. Cole had not had enough and told to a train conductor that he could serve royals lunch only with white gloves.

In London, they revealed the ruse by sending a letter and a group photo to The Daily Mirror. The Royal Navy briefly became an object of ridicule and demanded that Cole be arrested. However, Cole and his compatriots had not broken any law. The Navy sent two officers to cane Cole as a punishment - but Cole countered that it was they who should be caned because they had been fooled in the first place.