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Review: The Sultan of Zanzibar by Martyn Downer

Almost 100 years ago to the day, HMS Dreadnought, the pride of the British Navy, lay at anchor off the coast of Weymouth on an unremarkable February afternoon. The commander of the vessel, Admiral William May, received a message from the Foreign Office that the Emperor of Abyssinia was arriving for a tour of the ship.

Soon, a small (rather suspiciously small, it was thought afterwards) craft hove into view and the emperor and his entourage were escorted around the battleship with due ceremony.

Admiral May spoke with particular pride of the steam turbine engines, which made Dreadnought the fastest ship in her class, and the gun batteries, which made her the most deadly.

The imperial party exclaimed "Bunga! Bunga!" at each naval innovation and seemed greatly impressed. They refused lunch in the ward room, citing religious reasons.

The Emperor was welcomed ashore with a grand civic reception in Weymouth. The whole thing, the British military and civilian authorities believed, had gone off rather well.

Except that the affair was an elaborate ruse devised by one Horace de Vere Cole, Irish by birth and eccentric by inclination, and one of the great practical jokers of his -- or any other -- generation.

His entourage featured half of the Bloomsbury set. Virginia Woolf's brother Adrian, Virginia herself, painter Duncan Bell, Guy Ridley and Anthony Buxton all took part, blacked up, bearded and turbaned to a man (or woman).

The hoax -- which was immediately leaked to the newspapers -- marked the high point of Cole's prankstering, and brought the Bloomsbury group, and their pacifist beliefs, to prominence.

But, while many of the Bloomsbury set of writers, painters and aesthetes went on to greatness, Horace de Vere Cole descended into drink, anger and irrelevance.

His story has now been told in full for the first time by Martyn Downer in his biography The Sultan of Zanzibar: the Bizarre World and Spectacular Hoaxes of Horace de Vere Cole.

Horace was born in Ballincollig, Co Cork, in 1881, the son of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, poet and mystic Mary de Vere and a more down-to-earth, phlegmatic Englishman, William Cole.

Mary de Vere brought titles and romance to the match; William Cole brought money made from the sale of the drug quinine, then much used to treat (or prevent) malaria in Britain's colonies.

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All his life, Horace de Vere Cole veered wildly between the extremes of temperament represented by his parents. After his father died, he spent most of his boyhood at Issercleran, the Galway estate of his mother's family. (It was later the Irish home of film director John Huston).

He also visited the estate of his English relatives at West Woodhay in Berkshire, where he once stuffed his German governess into the luggage lift.

Back at Issercleran he fell under the spell of the Celtic Revival, in which his mother was passionately involved. He mingled with the leading figures of the Anglo-Irish set: Lady Gregory, Lord Dunsany and James Stephens.

"I have a strong feeling for the downlands of Wiltshire and Hampshire," he said of his English home, "but it is nothing like the feeling I have for Ireland."

Marked by this twin heritage -- phlegmatic Englishness and misty, romantic Irishness -- Horace de Vere Cole went up to Cambridge, scene of one of his most daring hoaxes.

Upon reading that the Sultan of Zanzibar was visiting England at the time, he cabled the mayor to say that His Excellency Sayyid Ali ibn Hamud Al-Busaid would like to stop at Cambridge.

Cole raided the dress-up box and appeared accompanied by a troupe of disguised undergraduates. Mayor Campkin and his municipal officials were completely taken in.

The hoaxers' cover was nearly blown when a local lady who had worked in Zanzibar as a missionary asked to speak to the Sultan in his native tongue. The Sultan's "translator" intervened, explaining that she could do so only on condition that she joined his harem.

After he left Cambridge, Cole sold his estate at West Woodhay and set himself up as a bon viveur in London and around Europe. He began to devote his considerable intelligence to a series of pranks and creative mischief.

While on holiday in Venice, he spent the night spreading piles of horse dung around St Mark's Square. There were no horses in the city, and Cole enjoyed the puzzlement of the locals over how the droppings arrived there.

Back in Dublin after the 1916 Rising, Cole fell under the spell of the unstable heriess Denise Daly, who was related to the powerful Lynchs of Galway. They married in the University Church, St Stephen's Green in Dublin in 1918. She was 19 and he was 37.

The couple were heirs to four substantial estates in Ireland. They retired to Raford in Galway and tried to lead the country life.

They were, says Martyn Downer, "temperamentally unsuited for such a life. Each had their own demons to fight".

Typical of his class, Cole was sympathetic to Home Rule but against the Rising. Also typical of his class, he wrote a long letter to British prime minister Lloyd George pointing out the error of British policy in Ireland.

Raford was raided by the IRA -- they took Cole's best clothes, shoes and Denise's jewels -- but not burned down, as happened to many Anglo-Irish houses. Cole took refuge in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, where he drank late into the night with James Stephens and painter Jack Yeats.

While at the Shelbourne, Cole claimed to have apprehended an English spy "for his own good, otherwise he would have been shot". He sent him packing back to London, along with a message that he had been caught by the legendary Michael Collins.

Two days later, Cole was accosted in his hotel room by two trigger-happy Black and Tans eager to claim the £5,000 reward for the capture of Collins dead or alive.

"I produced some whiskey, and succeeded by lavish hospitality in reducing the men to a helpless state," Cole said afterwards. "They staggered away, saying that I was a jolly good fellow even if I was Michael Collins, and anyway what was £5,000 to them."

The incident sums up Horace de Vere Cole: clever, resourceful, brave, yet somehow pointless.

He died, impoverished and forgotten, his great fortune spent and his family alienated, in France in 1936.

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