While I was careful to preface Ethiopia through writers’ eyes with the following:
“Like all those possessing a library, Aurelian was aware that he was guilty of not knowing his in its entirety.”
The Theologians, Jorge Luis Borges
It rests that as soon as a book is launched into the world, be it from the flat topped amba of Mount Abora, a multitude of overlooked works immediately begin to form a perilously high tower of their own.
Here then, after the canon of Ethiopia through writers’ eyes, the apocrypha:
The Dreadnought Hoax, 1910, Horace de Vere Cole, Virginia Woolf & friends
The Dreadnought Hoax, was a practical joke carried out by Horace de Vere Cole, together with a band of Cambridge friends, later to become the Bloomsbury group, of which the famed writer Virginia Woolf.
The group learnt that HMS Dreadnought, one of the British navy’s most important battleships, was moored in Dorset (It seems that the idea for the joke originated with rival officers from the HMS Hawke). The group of pranksters sent a telegram to the Dreadnought command, informing them that “a group of Abyssinian royals were to visit the battleship.” The band of friends, in full disguise with turbans, flowing robes…etc. and what today would be called ‘blackface’, then commandeered a special train from London, and arrived in Dorset, where they were duly welcomed with the ‘Zanzibar’ national anthem’ (as the Navy were ‘unable to locate the Abyssinian one’).
In the words of Woolf:
“In those days the young officers had a gay time. They were always up to some lark; and one of their chief occupations it seemed was to play jokes on each other. There were a great many rivalries and intrigues in the navy. The officers liked scoring off each other. And the officers of the Hawke and the Dreadnought had a feud. … And Cole’s friend who was on the Hawke had come to Cole, and said to him, ‘You’re a great hand at hoaxing people; couldn’t you do something to pull the leg of the Dreadnought?’”
Today, putting on blackface will get you blacklisted in no time at all, but it is not so much that such a practice was acceptable in 1910 that should surprise us (one could point out that slavery was widespread and socially acceptable in Abyssinia at the time), but the fact that in 1910, a group of pranksters could pose as royal Abyssinians on a navy ship in Great-Britain—and get away with it, for the joke was a resounding success and largely publicized in the press, to the admiralty’s huge discomfort. Virginia Woolf—the Borat of her times?
Curiously, there is good anedotal advice that the Bunga-Bunga term so dear to Sylvio Berlusconi, found its source here, as the groupe of ‘Abyssinians’ expressed their delight at everything they saw on board the Dreadnought by exclaiming Bunga! Bunga!*
Later on, in 1910, a new ditty was heard in the London music-halls:
When I went on board a Dreadnought ship
I looked like a costermonger;
They said I was an Abyssinian prince
‘Cos I shouted ‘Bunga Bunga!’
*For clarity’s sake, I should perhaps point out that there is no such expression in Ethiopia…