Weird Wednesdays: Who’s afraid of Abyssinian Princess?

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"The Emperor of Abyssinia" and his suite From left to right: Virginia Stephen (Virginia Woolf), Duncan Grant, Horace Cole, Anthony Buxton (seated), Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley. (screenshot/hoaxes.org)

“The Emperor of Abyssinia” and his suite
From left to right: Virginia Stephen (Virginia Woolf), Duncan Grant, Horace Cole, Anthony Buxton (seated), Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley. (screenshot/hoaxes.org)

Much pomp and circumstance was to be had on the Royal British Navy battleship HMS Dreadnought in London, on Feb. 7, 1910. The Prince Makalen of Abyssinia and his royal entourage were to visit at 4:20 that afternoon, and much preparations were to be made. A fanfare and orchestra was prepared for the group’s arrival, and in absentia of the Abyssinian flag, the Zanzibar flag was to be flown and the anthem to be touted. A full dinner was prepared by Navy cooks, and an honor guard stood ready to greet the group.

The meeting on the Dreadnought at the height of Britain’s naval and colonial power, was momentous indeed. The battleship boasted all of the latest technology and was the jewel of the Royal Naval fleet.

At 4:20, the group arrived. Four emissaries, with beards, turbans and dripping with jewelry, made their way from a specially-commissioned special coach at Paddington Station. They chatted excitedly in Abyssinian, flanked by two English translators in suits and bowler-hats.

The group received their reception well, clapping their hands and exclaiming “Bunga bunga!” in delight at the music and introductions. The emissaries attempted to bestow Abyssinian military honors upon some of officers; the sumptuous dinner, however, was refused, on the grounds that it was incorrectly prepared for a royal’s palate. After 45 minutes of visiting, the group bid farewell and made their retreat back to the embassy –– but not before getting their picture snapped with the head officers and captain.

The next day, the London newspapers reported on the entourage, describing the foreigner’s strange language and their odd aversion to the London rain. All seemed well, another successful international gap closed with goodwill from both sides.

The stories of the meeting the papers ran a few days later, however, were of a totally different tone.

Feb. 7, 1910, in the early morning. Writers, philosophers and intellectuals Adrian Stephen, Robert Bowen Colthurst, Horace de Vere Cole, Leland Buxton, Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) and Lyulph Howard converged upon the home of their theatrical-inclined friend, Willy Clarkson.

There, he covered Woolf, Colthurst, de Vere Cole and Buxton in dark makeup, outfitted them with flowing robes, fake beards and turbans, covered them with costume jewelry and sent them on their way. Stephen donned a suit and bowler hat, and kept a Swahili grammar guide in his pocket, which they consulted frequently. A friend of theirs sent a telegram to the offices of the British Royal Navy, concerning the royal prince of Abyssinia coming for a visit…

As you may have guessed, the ‘Royal visit’ to the Dreadnought was a prank, cooked up by Woolf and her compatriots in all their Edwardian racism. Despite the fact Woolf and Stephen’s cousin was on the ship, the fact that the rain constantly threatened to wash away their makeup, the cheap beards nearly flying away on several occasions (such so they refused dinner, in fear of revealing the fake facial hair) and the totally made-up language the group used, based on Swahili, to communicate, the navy fell for it hook, line and sinker. The group, which would later on establish the famed intellectual club the Bloomsbury Group, described the prank as “screamingly funny” in later letters, as they played “jolly savages” (again, racist) to the all-too-welcoming navy.

It wasn’t the first time the group had pulled a gag like this. A few years before, de Vere Cole dressed himself and a few fellow undergraduates of Trinity College as the King of Zanzibar and consorts, snagging themselves a tour of their own university and red-carpet treatment.

The Dreadnought hoax was no different. London’s The Daily Mirror caught wind of the prank a few days after it transpired, and ran the photo of the ‘emissaries’ posing with the navy officers. Three months of international coverage from newspapers later, and the Navy was thoroughly embarrassed –– to the point where two naval officers later showed up at de Vere Cole’s house and jokingly beat him with a cane. The whole incident, unfortunately, is a reflection of both Britain’s imperialism and the general public’s lack of knowledge and demonetization of African culture (as ‘Bunga bunga,’ which was totally made up, demonstrates.)

What’s the moral of the story? Check your sources. Don’t take people’s words at heart. Respect other cultures, educate yourselves and, if an Abyssinian prince emails you asking for lunch and your bank details, politely decline. And, of course, stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.

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