The Girl Prince: Virginia Woolf, Race and the Dreadnought Hoax
The many readers and followers of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group will certainly be aware of her participation in this “bigoted blackface prank”—the Dreadnought Hoax —but are unlikely to have had the hoax’s mechanics, impact, and socio-political context set out so elegantly and in such detail as they are in this new publication by Danell Jones.
Perhaps the main question for the Woolf initiates is: Are we surprised by this demonstration of elitism, classism, and racism by Woolf and her family and friends, despite the acknowledged power and lasting magic of her and some of their writings? The wealth of new material presented here does nothing to counter the view that Woolf’s ideas on feminism and pacificism did not impact on her routine bigotry against Blacks, Jews, and the working class, to name but a few of the social categories she considered to be inferior.
In February 1906 King Edward VII launched Britain’s newest, and most magnificent battleship, the H.M.S. Dreadnought, at Portsmouth. Some four years later, five men and “a girl” disguised as Princes of Abyssinia, in what seems to have been rather amateurishly applied “blackface,” requested to make a formal visit to the ship and were received with appropriate honors.
These “Abyssinians” were Virginia Woolf, her lethargic brother Adrian, undecided whether to be a barrister or an actor; a wealthy eccentric Horace de Vere Cole with a history of mediagenic practical jokes; and two more friends, Anthony Buxton and Guy Ridley, who for various reasons thought that pranking the Establishment, in the form of the Royal Navy, could only be a good thing. Of course, all participants were themselves very much part of the élite.
Perhaps the most interesting and original part of this book is its exploration of Black British history that contextualizes but does not excuse this prank. Britain had abolished its slave trade a century earlier, and now conceived of itself as fundamentally enlightened particularly by contrast with such countries as the U.S.A. But this did not mean that Black people, and particularly Africans, were regarded as equal, as the enduring popularity of blackface minstrel shows, and of ethnographic museum exhibits of “natives” clearly demonstrated. There were however many visits to the U.K. by African royalty, all closely covered by the British press, and a visit to a battleship might well be on the cards during such a royal progress.
Jones handles deftly and elegantly the wealth of materials now available on the Dreadnought Hoax, that, however, provides a good deal of conflicting evidence, even from Woolf herself, on the reasons for and the timing of her joining the prank; what actually happened on the visit to the battleship; and who afterwards leaked what, when, and to whom.
Jones is extremely conscious of the contrast between the brilliance of Woolf’s work and “her easy racist remarks and cruel caricatures of her friends, and her sense of superiority over the people who had been so shortsighted as to be born into a lower class.” It is also probably true that for many people already familiar with Woolf’s life and work, “feminist icon” is not among the first accolades they would offer. It takes a little more than wishing for a room of one’s own, or a faithful description of the “tinselly” Clarissa Dalloway’s unfulfilled life, to earn that title. Not that Woolf was alone in her blind spots. Who can forget Black, former slave Sojourner Truth’s memorable call to the First Wave Women’s Convention in Ohio “Ain’t I a Woman?” Granted that was in 1851, but there is still and always room for improvement!
Jones’ overall message is that though lives of writers may be deeply flawed this should not affect our response to their works, though it must surely affect our views on some aspects of the works’ sincerity.
As noted earlier, while shedding new light on Woolf and her world, the main contribution of this publication may be its exploration of Black history in Britain, which lures the reader into wanting to know more. Jones introduces many of the extraordinary Black individuals’ resident in the U.K. at the time, including in Woolf’s Bloomsbury, some of whom would go on to play crucial roles in the dismantling of Empire (arguably still ongoing.). One of the most curious characters we meet is Thomas Brown, a Jamaican, who won the British public’s heart by his adventures as Prince Thomas Makaroo, or sometimes Makarooroo, of Zululand, who also claimed to be heir to the throne of Ceylon. His was pranking on a grand scale!