‘Bunga Bunga’ is today associated with allegedly colourful sex parties attended by former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Yet more than a century earlier, the phrase originated and was linked with a different type of party in Weymouth Bay. In 1910, author Virginia Woolf, and her small equally colourful party of friends pulled off one of the most famous practical jokes in British military history.
At the time, the British Navy was the most powerful and largest in the world and Portland was an important base. The Royal Navy was seen as one of the foundations of the British Empire and as a reflection of the nation’s power and wealth. The formidable HMS Dreadnought was the pride of the Royal Navy and flagship of the Channel Fleet and in February 1910 was berthed in Weymouth Bay. Pretending to be a VIP foreign delegation, Virginia and her friends obtained permission to visit the prestigious battleship. Four of the party, including Virginia herself, dressed up as fake Abyssinian royals including one as ‘Prince Makalin’. Two others pretended to be Foreign Office officials. Costumes were provided by a theatrical costumier called Willie Clarkson. A telegram had been sent to the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet stating that the Prince of Abyssinia would be arriving at Weymouth later that day and that he wanted to view HMS Dreadnought. At Paddington Station one of the party notorious prankster Henry de Vere Cole, claiming to be Henry Cholmondelay of the Foreign Office, demanded a special train to Weymouth. The station master duly responded and provided a special VIP carriage.
Arriving at Weymouth station, the Navy welcomed the ‘Prince’ and his party with a guard of honour. They half expected that no one would take any notice of them and they would have to slink back to London. On the contrary, the Navy literally rolled out the red carpet for them. An Abyssinian flag could not be found so a Zanzibar flag was flown and the Zanzibar national anthem was played instead. (The Abyssinian national anthem did not exist.) The VIP party was transferred to HMS Dreadnought, at anchor in Weymouth Bay, on the Admiral’s barge and shown around the vessel by the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir William May. Each time the Commander showed them a marvel of the ship they muttered the words ‘Bunga, Bunga!’ The party’s ‘interpreter’ explained that this translated as ‘isn’t it lovely!’ The bogus party continued on the tour talking a mixture of Swahili, Latin and gibberish. When invited to dine by the ship’s officers, they declined for fear their false beards might fall off. They were also concerned that their theatrical makeup would come off if it started to rain. Twenty eight year old Virginia Woolf, then Miss Stephen, spoke as little as possible for fear her voice would give the game away so Henry de Vere Cole played the lead role. However, Virginia was still able to utilise her hearty laugh. Cole was in fact the ringleader of the hoax and a notorious practical joker. While on his honeymoon in Venice, he arranged for horse manure overnight to be deposited in St Mark's Square. The locals woke up somewhat bemused as there were no horses in Venice. On another occasion he gave away strategically situated theatre tickets to a group of bald headed men. When the lights went up their shiny domes spelled out an expletive!
When the news of the Dreadnought hoax later broke, the press had a field day and the Royal Navy became a laughing stock. The Daily Express reported with glee how the ‘Prince’ was shown top secret guns, torpedoes and wireless equipment. Humiliated and embarrassed, HMS Dreadnought was sent out to sea until the whole matter had blown over. Eventually, the tale spread across the English speaking world. Sailors on leave were greeted mockingly by cries of ‘Bunga, Bunga’ an expression which soon became a music hall joke.
When I went aboard a Dreadnought ship
I looked a costermonger
They said I was an Abyssinian prince
‘Cos I shouted ‘Bunga Bunga’!
The Royal Navy wanted to take legal action but was unable to do so as no laws had been broken. So instead they sent junior officers to give some of the male members of the party a symbolic ‘thrashing on the buttocks.’
During World War I, HMS Dreadnought rammed and sank a German submarine. Following the incident one of the telegrams received read ‘Bunga, Bunga!’
(Illustrations: 'Bunga Bunga' party from a 1940s comic & original photograph below.)