The Bloomsbury Group was a set of illustrious writers and artists of the early 20th century: it included Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Their reputation remains to this day one of intellectual experimentation and highbrow sensibility mingled with a touch of Bohemianism and penchant for shocking the bourgeoisie. One rather less well-known episode concerning the Bloomsbury Group, however, concerns something quite unexpected for such an august body of artistic personages, something that would now be regarded as a publicity stunt, but was executed simply as a prank.
In 1910, the Royal Navy was duped into hosting a visit to its flagship HMS Dreadnought by a 'delegation' of 'Abyssinian' royal dignitaries (Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then often known, was ruled at the time by Menelik II). This delegation consisted of the poet and joker Horace de Vere Cole who organised the prank, and his accomplices Virginia Woolf (or Stephen as she was then before her marriage to Leonard Woolf), Virginia's brother Adrian, Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton and the artist Duncan Grant – blacked up and wearing exotic turbans and robes!
Horace de Vere Cole demanded, and obtained, VIP transport for his 'eminent foreign guests', and the whole party proceeded from London to Weymouth where they inspected the Dreadnought. They were welcomed with a naval guard of honour and, due to the unavailability of an Abyssinian flag, a Zanzibar flag was hoisted instead, faute de mieux. As a result of this prank and the ensuing press coverage, the Navy was widely ridiculed for having been so thoroughly taken in, with the added edge that the Bloomsbury Group was renowned for its pacifism.
Incidentally, as part of their act during the spoof visit, the group spoke in gibberish and exclaimed, 'Bunga! Bunga!' when shown anything impressive. This caught on: when the real Menelik II visited Britain at a later date, gawping children shouted, 'Bunga! Bunga!' at him and his entourage (ironically, the king asked to view the Navy's facilities, but the officer in charge declined his request, perhaps to avoid further embarrassment). One of the more memorable of Italian ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's scandals during his premiership involved him being accused of hosting 'bunga bunga' parties. There were various interpretations as to how this phrase came about. Whether there is any connection between Berlusconi and the Bloomsbury Group will always remain a puzzle!