“On or about December 1910 human character changed,” Virginia Woolf
famously declared. Woolf not only helped bring about modernism; she
dared give it a start date. But she could have set that start date
earlier in the year. On February 7, 1910, Woolf and three other members
of the emerging Bloomsbury group, including Woolf’s brother Adrian
Stephen, played a hoax on the famed British battleship H.M.S.
Dreadnought by impersonating the emperor of Abyssinia and his retinue.
Donning blackface, fake beards, and turbans, the group managed to board
the ship as honored visitors—with two additional members pretending to
be their guides, essentially posing as themselves. The ringleader of the
half-dozen hoaxers, Horace de Vere Cole, wrote in a letter that came to
light more than a hundred years later, “I was so amused at being just
myself in a tall hat—I had no disguise whatever and talked in an
ordinary friendly way to everyone—the others talked nonsense. We had all
learned some Swahili: I said they were ‘jolly savages’ but that I didn’t
understand much of what they said.” “A rum lingo they speak,” one of the
Dreadnought’s junior officers grumbled under his breath, but the ship’s
officers, who happened to include a cousin of Woolf (then still named
Virginia Stephen), failed to recognize the blackface troupe as anything
but genuine. The crew toured the group around, welcoming them with a red
carpet and sending the retinue on their way in a carriage—right before their
beards fell off.

Soon after, the story of the hoax broke, causing much embarrassment for
the proud British Navy; some officers, including Woolf’s cousin, issued
threats against the perpetrators. Most who learned of the incident,
however, including the ship’s captain, thought it a fine prank. Woolf
and her husband, Leonard, later published “The ‘Dreadnought’ Hoax,” an
account written by her brother, at their Hogarth Press, in 1936. In it,
Stephen, who had played one of the guides, described the mind-set of the
hoaxers. “By the time we reached the Dreadnought,” he wrote, “the
expedition had become for me at any rate almost an affair of every day.
It was hardly a question any longer of a hoax. We were almost acting the
truth.”

Why did these future members of the modernist literary movement darken
their skin, speak “gibberish fluently,” pretending it was Swahili, and
board the primary guardian of the British fleet? Why show up at His
Majesty’s Ship, the very symbol of empire, masquerading as “black”—or at
least blackened—and, in the case of the future Virginia Woolf, as male?
Even as a burlesque, the Dreadnought hoax enacted a truth not just about
those the hoaxers fooled but about the hoaxers themselves.

By the time of the Dreadnought escapade, blackface was regularly used in
the United States among white ethnic immigrants, who once would have
been labelled less than white, as a way of signalling that they were
quintessentially American. As with blackface minstrelsy, begun in the
nineteenth century, the hoaxers’ donning of blackface indicated that
they could become something not just new but foreign, not just foreign
but American, and not just American but literally black. This view may
best be called exoticist—a way of both wanting the foreign and finding
it wanting. The exoticist not only takes in what Edward Said terms
Orientalism, conceiving the Orient as something against which the West
defines itself, but also connects these ideas across other formalized
kinds of exoticism. All are tied to desire. Exoticists rely on race
mainly to define themselves as well beyond it, playing foreign in
order to contend, or content themselves, that they belong. Nothing can
be more American than wearing blackface or redskin; nothing more British
than donning a dark beard and turban. While not always white, the
exoticist is always at home.

In boarding the most prominent vessel of the British fleet, an emblem of
its soon-to-fade empire, the “jolly savages” showed up the British
Empire while also making fun of an Abyssinia where royalty was only an
illusion. What the Dreadnoughts spoke was the language of the
hoax—elemental, bearded, gibberish as native tongue. Like the hoax, it
was contagious: one of the “Swahili” phrases they reportedly uttered,
“bunga-bunga,” would become “public catchwords for a time, and were
introduced as tags into music-hall songs and so forth,” Stephen wrote.
(Much later, the term was renewed by Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi, who called his sex parties Bunga Bunga parties, playing on a
common racist joke; the familiar exoticist combination of racism and sex
keeps on ticking.)

That the hoaxers referred to Abyssinia, not Ethiopia, also indicates
something about the worldview behind it. To pose as Abyssinian
royalty was to invoke the stuff of British literature, whether Samuel
Johnson’s “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia” (1759) or
Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1798) (“In a vision I once saw: / It was an
Abyssinian maid, / And on her dulcimer she played, / Singing of Mount
Abora”). It was a place that was often spoken of but rarely seen. Yet
the Dreadnought hoax occurred just as Ethiopia was becoming a force in
the new world in both senses—while “Ethiopian” was cited as the lowest
of racial categories by pseudoscientists of the time, Ethiopianism was
also the name given to a burgeoning Pan-African movement that was then
at its height in America. Ethiopia became a symbolic home for the
progressive “New Negro,” with black writers invoking an Ethiopian
homeland the way the Harlem Renaissance would invoke Mother Africa soon
after. That the Dreadnought hoaxers misspelled the land as “Abbysinia”
in a telegram to the commander of the Home Fleet before they arrived, a
clue he surely should have caught, also indicates that the country being
conjured was only an idea—a backdrop, or a black one—an abyss.

The photographs of the Dreadnought hoax, our main means of knowing what
the cohort looked like, are as staged as the hoax itself. They were
taken in a studio and encapsulate the empire’s descent from Victorian to
Edwardian to soon-to-be-war-torn Britain—a parody of power. The whole
affair wouldn’t have worked as well as a hoax if it were completely
convincing; the fake beard must be obvious, if only after the fact. Just
as male-to-female drag doesn’t seek to transform its performer into an
actual woman but rather plays with the idea of femininity, especially
its enforced excesses, the dark makeup that the hoaxers wore proved
homage and parody in one. The hoax also honored an earlier prank, which
Stephen and Cole committed as students at Cambridge, in which they
pretended that one of them was the “Sultan of Zanzibar,” in blackface,
and paid a visit to the town mayor.

Might the Dreadnought hoax put us in mind of another group of white
folks who darkened their skins and boarded a ship to disrupt and mock
the British Empire a century or so before? The Boston Tea Party had
announced a revolution and also an American aesthetic of “redface,”
which was simultaneously stolen and native-born. The Dreadnought hoax
announced a change in human character as well as in the character of the
hoax itself. This change was predicated on race—or at least on its
pretense.

This is to say that the Dreadnought hoax managed something peculiarly American. For, while the blackamoor had been a tradition in British
culture at least since Shakespeare, the figure had proved so invisible
as to be tragic—a role trapped in dark skin or glimpsed in shadows at the corner of a painting’s frame. The Dreadnoughts’ blackface more resembled America’s, and its aspiration as the first national popular culture. If
blackface, from its start, in the eighteen-thirties, had been one of the
things that white Americans used to signal their nativeness, now the
Dreadnoughts used it to signal their foreignness—pretending to be
foreign powers while pretending to be themselves.

Blackface remains exoticist and offensive as a practice not just because
of its long tradition of being used to mock black selfhood, sexuality,
and speech, but because of its assertion that black people are merely
white people sullied by dark skin. Such a view was central to the
formation of the idea of race, with religion and so-called science
seeing the “Ethiopian” as degraded and devolved from whites. “Can the
Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do
good, that are accustomed to do evil,” a Bible verse, from Jeremiah,
says. Society’s conflation of the Ethiopian and evil, skin and
permanence, blackness and irredeemable nature, would find regular
justification in these words. Indeed, the Biblical Adam and Eve origin
story would often prove the only argument against the theory of blacks
being a separate species, even as chapter and verse were cited to
justify slavery, too.

Blackness, in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
became seen as a mere disease, with negroes descended not from Adam or even
the fabled “mark of Cain” but degenerated from corrupted environment,
atavistic savagery, or worse. One prominent American Philosophical
Society member, writing to Thomas Jefferson, in 1797, suggested that the
resulting “black color (as it is called)” of those “known by the epithet
of negroes” was “Derived from the Leprosy.” (Jefferson didn’t exactly
disagree.) Might the Dreadnought hoaxers’ faked Ethiopia also be
referring, however obliquely, to the leopard’s spots, blackness an
epithet they could simply scrub off?

This is the second in a series of pieces adapted from “Bunk: The Rise
of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News
,” which will be published in November by Graywolf Press. The first piece
examined race, the penny press, and the Moon Hoax of 1835
.