Early in February 1910 a telegram landed on the desk of the commander of HMS Dreadnought and in it was electrifying news. Prince Musaka Ali from Abyssinia and three of his fellow princes wished to conduct a state visit of his ship, it was signed by Sir Charles Hardinge the Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office. The captain of HMS Dreadnought immediately set to work preparing his ship for the visit. On February the 7th the party of four Abyssinian princes, escorted by Herbert Cholmondeley and another civil servant from the Foreign Office arrived at Paddington station. Mr Cholmondeley demanded a special train to Weymouth, but had to settle for a VIP carriage on a regular train.
As the carriage arrived at Weymouth it was met by a naval officer, and he escorted the party aboard HMS Dreadnought. As the princes arrived the band started to play as the national flags were raised. However the Dreadnought had committed a massive faux pas. Unable to find a copy of the Abyssinian flag or national anthem they had to settle with that of Zanzibar. Luckily the visitors didn't seem to take offence or even notice the insult.
Towards lunchtime a large banquet was laid on by the crew of HMS Dreadnought. However again cultural sensibilities came into play with the princes unable to eat anything due to restrictions on how the food should be prepared. Later in the day as the princes toured the upper decks a sharp wind had picked up and it began to drizzle. Mr Cholmondeley remarked to the captain about the disparity between the heat of Abyssinia and the British climate. The captain of HMS Dreadnought caught the hint and whisked his cold visitors below decks.
Towards the end of the day the captain of HMS Dreadnought insisted on a salute for his royal guests. This included a full ceremonial broadside. The princes turned down the salute, saying that it was a benevolent gift from their emperor to the crew of the Dreadnought for their hospitality. And with that the princes and their escort left.
Simply put, there were no Abyssinian princes visiting. It was a group of academics conducting a massive practical joke. Virginia Stephen, Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton and Duncan Grant had dressed up as the princes, and despite being known to several officers of the ship managed to trick them into thinking it was legitimate visit. That was why the use of the Zanzibar flag and national anthem was not remarked upon. They refused the food because their disguises were not up to the task of eating and were already failing, one of the fake moustaches was peeling off by lunch time. The drizzle and wind blown spray ran the risk of causing the make up to run. The refusal of the salute however was down entirely to the group not wanting to put the crew of the ship through the hard work of cleaning the guns after firing.
The translations were a mixture of Greek and Latin words mispronounced and said in a sightly off manner to throw any educated men.
The hoax was exposed in very short order by the UK's newspapers, and it led to Parliamentary questions and a review of the Royal Navy's security.
There is of course a word of warning. The only eye witness account of the incident and its aftermath, or even the events surrounding it has been written by the pranksters themselves, so how much can be taken with a grain of salt will likely never be known.
One of the telegrams HMS Dreadnought received after her one and only victory over an enemy simply read "Bunga! Bunga!".