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The Dreadnought Hoax

The Dreadnought Hoax, by Lafayette, 7 February 1910 - NPG P1293 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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The Dreadnought Hoax

by Lafayette
matte bromide print, 7 February 1910
6 7/8 in. x 8 3/4 in. (176 mm x 223 mm)
Purchased with help from Gift Aid visitor donations, 2007
Primary Collection
NPG P1293

Artistback to top

Sittersback to top

  • Anthony Buxton (1881-1970), Writer and naturalist; participant in Dreadnought Hoax. Sitter in 1 portrait.
  • (William) Horace De Vere Cole (1881-1936), Practical joker and participant in Dreadnought Hoax. Sitter in 1 portrait.
  • Duncan Grant (1885-1978), Artist. Sitter associated with 30 portraits, Artist of 9 portraits.
  • Guy Ridley (1885-1947), Solicitor; participant in Dreadnought Hoax. Sitter associated with 1 portrait.
  • Adrian Stephen (1883-1948), Psychoanalyst; son of Sir Leslie Stephen. Sitter associated with 7 portraits.
  • Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) (1882-1941), Novelist and critic; sister of Vanessa Bell. Sitter in 63 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This is a historic work of art which reflects the attitudes and viewpoints of the time in which it was made. Whilst these may differ from today's attitudes, this image is an important historical document. This image is currently being researched, further information about this image will be updated below.

The Dreadnought Hoax is one of the most famous practical jokes in British Military history. The hoax was orchestrated by renowned prankster Horace de Vere Cole and five of his college friends who on 7th February 1910 gained access under false pretense to HMS Dreadnought, the Royal Navy’s iconic and most technologically advanced warship of the period.

Cole posed as a British Foreign Office official, whilst his collaborators masqueraded as an interpreter and Abyssinian foreign dignitaries by dressing up in elaborate ‘orientalist’ costumes and wearing ‘blackface’, a practice largely acceptable and prevalent in theatrical circles of the time but something that would be considered a racial slur today.

Virginia Stephens (later, Woolf), the only woman in the group, cross-dressed to pose as a man, wearing a false beard. The imposters were received by the Captain of the ship with great honour, despite the short notice given by a forged telegram of their impending arrival. When given a VIP tour of the warship, the group showed their appreciation by repeatedly using the invented phrase “Bunga Bunga!” in a bogus ‘native’ language which the group had agreed to speak. The language was largely made up of gibberish with the addition of a few Swahili and Latin words.

The improvised ‘Africanism’ displayed by the group proved to be convincing for those who had little exposure to African cultures. When the hoax was revealed by Cole to the newspapers after the event, the Daily Mirror printed an article about it which included this studio image. “Bunga Bunga” became a national catchphrase for a short time, acting as an embarrassing reminder to the Navy of the incident which had bought national security into question but eventually led to the tightening of military security measures as a result.

This photograph was taken at the studio of Lafayette in London, just before the party set out on train to Weymouth in Dorset where HMS Dreadnought was moored. It is suspected that the group had intended to reveal the practical joke afterwards by distributing this photograph to the national papers.

Placesback to top

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1910back to top

Current affairs

George V succeeds Edward VII to the throne.
The Liberals win narrow victories after calling two General Elections following escalating tension between the Liberal administration and the Lords reached crisis point with the Lords' unprecedented rejection of Lloyd George's 1909 budget. The budget included tax reform intended to fund social reform and a rearmament programme, but was seen by the Conservative Lords as an assault on property.

Art and science

The critic and Bloomsbury group member Roger Fry curates a ground-breaking and, at the time, shocking exhibition in London's Grafton Galleries, Manet and the Post-Impressionists. The exhibition introduces the work of contemporary European artists to the London art establishment, including Manet, Cezanne, Gaugin and Van Gogh, and Fry became a champion of modern art, coining the term 'Post-Impressionism'.

International

Japan annexes Korea as a colony, an indication of Japan's ambitious imperialist aims and attempts to control trade and influence in East Asia. Japanese occupation of Korea lasted until 1945, after Japan surrendered to the Allied forces at the end of the Second World War and Korea was divided in two by the United States and the Soviet Union.

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