The Dreadnought Hoax

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© 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

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This is a historical 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 Whilst these may differ from today's attitudes, this image is an important historical document.

The Dreadnought Hoax was a notorious practical joke 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 pretences to HMS Dreadnought, the Royal Navy's most advanced warship.

Cole posed as a British Foreign Office official, whilst his collaborators masqueraded as an interpreter and Abyssinian dignitaries by dressing up in elaborate 'orientalist' costumes and wearing 'blackface'. This was a widely accepted practice in theatre and performance but also in high society circles where fancy dress gatherings were common. To modern audiences this image is offensive and would be considered a racial slur.

Virginia Stephens (later, Woolf), the only woman in the group, posed 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.

This photograph was taken at the studio of Lafayette in London, just before the party set out on train to Weymouth, Dorset where HMS Dreadnought was moored. Photographs from the session were widely published in the press when the hoax was revealed by Cole. "Bunga Bunga" became a national catchphrase for a short time, acting as an embarrassing reminder to the Royal Navy of the incident. The hoax bought national security into question and resulted in a tightening of military security measures.

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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'.


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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