Robert Surcouf, ‘le Roi de Corsaires’

Capture of Kent by Confiance. Painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray.

Robert Surcouf had made his name and fortune years in the East, capturing the 1,200-ton Indiaman Kent in 1800 and retiring to St Malo. At the Emperor Napoleon’s urging, he returned to Ile de France in 1807 in Revenant, an 18-gun sloop built to Surcouf’s design, her hull completely sheathed in copper, one of the fastest ships afloat. Over the past year, Revenant had become the bane of shipping in the Bay of Bengal, where she had taken more than thirty prizes. In one two-month spell alone, nineteen British vessels were captured by Revenant and two French frigates.

The losses produced squeals of outrage from the merchants of Calcutta who drafted a memorial to the Admiralty, pointing out that ‘the two small islands of Mauritias [sic] and Bourbon’ were the source of their ‘unprecedented suffering’. Surcouf’s activity had been conducted ‘within one hundred leagues of Madras roads, the principal Station of His Majesty’s ships, where at the same time the Flag of a British Rear-Admiral [was] displayed.’

The greatest Breton corsair base was the tidal island of Saint-Malo, on the border with Normandy, whose citizens declared an independent republic in 1490–93 and which remained a free port and a pirate haven until 1688. It was the home of René Duguay-Trouin, who ran a corsair fleet of 64 ships and in 1709 was made Lieutenant General of the Naval Armies by King Louis XIV after capturing more than 300 English and allied merchant ships. Saint-Malo also produced the last grand practitioner of the guerre de course, Robert Surcouf, who directed a fleet of corsairs against British shipping worldwide during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period with a success that shone by contrast with the debacles of the French Navy, and who died fabulously wealthy in 1827.

Robert Surcouf, ‘le Roi de Corsaires’, by drawing on the islands’ privateering tradition and setting aside foolish notions of gloire. When an English captive once challenged him with the words ‘You French fight for money while we fight for honour’, Surcouf shot back: ‘A man fights for what he lacks most.’

The appearance of numerous French privateers in the Indian Ocean had by now become a grave concern to the Indiamen. Earlier in the year of 1799, on 3 February, the small, Extra-ship Echo, Captain William Catline, which had made the round trip out to Botany Bay and then China, was homeward bound from the Cape of Good Hope to London when taken by La Confiance. This was commanded by Robert Surcouf who had been menacing British trade in the Indian Ocean for four years, having first arrived at Île de France on a slaving voyage in 1795. The Île de France’s Governor Malartic had despatched him in the Émilie to secure foodstuffs for the island, but Surcouf had other ideas. Although intending to load a cargo of rice on the Burmese coast, in December 1795 he had encountered the British Country-brig Penguin. The Émilie was not flying colours and the master of the Penguin had fired a shot intended to force the stranger to reveal her nationality, but this was just the notional provocation Surcouf wanted and he immediately engaged the astonished Penguin which was, with her cargo of timber, sent into Île de France as a prize. Emboldened by this success Surcouf now sailed to the head of the Bay of Bengal, rightly judging that off the Sand Heads at the mouth of the Hughli he would be able to prey on British shipping – inward or outward bound – around the pilot station there.

At first light on 19 January 1796 the 23-year old Surcouf had spotted the pilot brig leading two outward-bound and loaded Country-ships clear of the shoals. Within an hour all three were his prizes. The two Country-ships were sent on their way to Port Louis and since both were full of rice, Surcouf had the satisfaction of having fulfilled Malartic’s orders and saved the Île de France from starvation. His conscience thus clear, he transferred his crew into the pilot-brig Cartier and sent the Émilie back to Port Louis. He was now able to lie in wait in a vessel not only familiar to all regular traders in the Bay but actively sought out by them for pilots. Under this deception, on 28 January Surcouf took a third rice-carrying vessel, the Diana. Having dispersed several prize-crews and being now short of hands Surcouf accompanied his newest prize on her way south, only to find the HCS Triton lying in Balasore Roads near the mouths of the Hughli, awaiting a pilot.

On 29 January 1796 the watch aboard the Triton spotted the approaching pilot-vessel and soon afterwards she rounded-to and lowered a boat which, on approaching, hailed them in English. Naturally assuming the pilot was about to embark, the boat was allowed alongside and a moment later her crew were on the Triton’s deck, their weapons revealing them as French corsairs. Captain Philip Burnyeat was among those killed in the smart fight that followed between ‘full two hundred stout fellows’ taken by surprise by eighteen bold Frenchmen led by Surcouf himself. Although the Triton was later recaptured by the Royal Navy and arrived at Madras in June 1798 – whereupon her former mate, David Dunlop, assumed command – the initial loss of this ship and in such a manner was a major blow to the Company’s prestige.

Surcouf was now embarrassed by the number of prisoners on his hands and released the Diana in exchange for a ransom promissory-note guaranteed by her master. Sending the Diana into the Hughli full of news of the French corsair’s audacity, Surcouf took command of the Triton and arrived triumphantly at Port Louis, Île de France, only to learn that in his absence the Cartier had been captured by HMS Victorious. This was not the only bad news he received, for his daring exploits had been carried out without any Letter-of-Marque-and-Reprisal and Governor Malartic was furious. Unimpressed by the young man’s audacity, Malartic confiscated Surcouf’s prizes and initiated a legal wrangle which later continued in Paris. The beneficiaries of Malartic’s action were the British, for Surcouf took passage to France to fight his case with a claim of 1,700,000 livres against the Governor. This he won after a process lasting over a year, tactfully remitting two-thirds of his award into the coffers of the ruling French Directory. The case, however, had attracted the notice of an armateur at Nantes named Félix Cossin. Of the fifty-seven privateers sent out from Nantes in 1797, no less than ten belonged to Cossin, who had been successfully fitting-out and operating corsairs since the beginning of the war. Now he offered the 14-gun ship-rigged Clarisse to Surcouf, an offer that was accepted and Surcouf, accompanied by his older brother Nicolas as first lieutenant, travelled to Nantes. At the end of July 1797 the Clarisse slipped down the Loire and escaped to sea, evading the British blockade.

Cossin’s investment nearly ended three weeks later when, a little south of the equator, the Clarisse ran into a British slaver. In the sharp engagement which followed Surcouf received a superficial but painful wound in the face, but he shot the commander of the slaver only to be rewarded by having the Clarisse’s fore-topmast carried away. These two events terminated the engagement; the two ships drew apart to repair the damage. Surcouf now proceeded directly for Port Louis, securing one prize – a brig – which accompanied him to Île de France where the Clarisse arrived on 5 December.

Surcouf left again early in January 1799, heading first for the Sumatran coast. Off Benkulen he took two prizes following a savage action in which brother Nicolas led the boarders, but the loss of men and damage to the Clarisse persuaded Surcouf to accompany his prizes back to Port Louis where he refitted his ship and recruited his crew. He sailed next on 17 August, heading again for the Sunda Strait were he took a Danish interloper on charter to British merchants, along with a Portuguese merchantman. He now made for the Sand Heads and seized a large Country-ship, the Auspicious, which was bound for Bombay with a valuable cargo that realised, after condemnation as a lawful prize, over one million francs.

Cruising in the offing the Clarisse encountered the Général Malartic, a French privateer owned in the Île de France and commanded by a Mascarene named Jean Dutertre. The two men dined together and in the course of an over-convivial evening fell out, starting a feud that was to have consequences of some moment. Having taken his departure of Dutertre, Surcouf watered off Mergui before approaching Balasore Road again on 30 December 1799. That night the Clarisse gave chase to a large merchant ship and almost ran down another vessel in the darkness; she was the British frigate Sybille and she now gave chase to the little Clarisse. Obliged to run, Surcouf knocked the wedges from his masts’ heels and threw all but six of his guns overboard: the Clarisse led the chase all night and all the following day. During the night, as the wind dropped and favoured the corsair, he was able to give the Sybille the slip.

On New Year’s Day 1800 Surcouf took the Country-ship Jane, owned by Bruce, Fawcett & Co. of Bombay, as she was outwards from Bengal laden with rice. Captain John Stewart had spoken to the American ship Mount Stewart and been warned by her master that a French corsair lay in the offing. Stewart had therefore prudently decided to keep company with the homeward-bound Indiamen Manship and Lansdowne and next day, the 31st, Stewart spoke with the Sybille which was returning to the Sand Heads from her fruitless chase of the Clarisse. This only confirmed the corsair’s presence. At daylight next morning the Jane lay 5 miles astern of the two Indiamen and at this moment

we saw a strange sail…who on perceiving us bore down with great caution, because, as Monsieur Surcouf afterward told me, he took one of the ships to be either Sybille or Nonsuch seeing the other two ships safe into the Sea.

Stewart himself was more certain of the situation.

When I saw the strange sail altered her course, I took it for granted that she was the privateer which the American had given intelligence of and immediately ordered a gun to be fired as a signal to the Indiamen. We continued the signal till about 8 o’clock when the privateer saw that the ships a-head paid no attention to our firing, she hoisted English colours – up studding-sails and royals and came on with more confidence – at ½ past 8 she gave us a shot, hauled down the English colours and hoisted the French national flag. We returned her fire from a 6-pounder which we got off the deck into a stern port in the great cabin, at the same time carrying every sail after the Indiamen, anxiously hoping that the constant firing would bring them to our assistance, but we looked in vain, for they never made the smallest movement to assist us. At 9 the privateer having got very near us, they began to fire grape shot from 2 brass 36-lb cohorns [small grenade-firing mortars] which they had mounted forward. At this time it came on a light squall from the southward which brought the Indiamen directly to windward of us. During the squall we carried on [a] press of sail and the firing ceased on both sides [but] the superior sailing of the privateer soon brought her up again when she commenced a smart fire from musketry and grape shot from one of the 36-lb cohorns – the other having been disabled early in the action; at 11 out powder was wholly expended, the last gun we fired being loaded with musket cartridges. The Frenchman then prepared to board us. They triced up grapnels to their main and fore yardarms, and Surcouf gave orders to board, animating his men with a promise of liberty to plunder. Seeing that we were incapable of resisting the force that was ready to be thrown on board of us, I was under the necessity of ordering the colours to be hauled down and we were taken possession of by an officer of the Clarissa (sic)…

On boarding his captor Stewart learned that the Clarisse’s armament had been much reduced by the necessity of throwing overboard seven of her carriage guns and all her spare spars in running from the Sybille. Her men had begun to cut away the upperworks when the wind fell light and enabled Surcouf to escape the Sybille. Stewart goes on to state what happened to his own ship and men after their capture.

Surcouf sent on board the…[Jane] one officer (by trade a tailor), sixteen Frenchmen, and ten lascars. They were employed until sunset shifting prisoners, and so refitting the rigging of the prize, which had been shot away during the action, and cutting out a double-headed shot which had entered near the stern post just above the waterline.

In his report Stewart records a further insight, inveighing with Surcouf against the Company commanders who had deserted him and pointing out the consequences.

All this time the Indiamen were in sight to the S.W. At sunset when Surcouf was viewing them from the poop thro’ a telescope he requested I would tell him upon my honour whether they were Indiamen or not. I repeated what I told him before that they were two Company’s ships with whom I had kept company ever since we left the pilot. He replied they were two Tritons, alluding to the easy capture which he made of that ship, and said that the commanders deserved to be shot. This was the universal opinion of the French officers. I fear their conduct will be attended with bad consequences to the Hon’ble Company’s ships as it has given the Frenchmen a very contemptible opinion of them and will subject them to many attacks which a spirited behaviour would have freed them from…

The senior of the officers concerned was John Altham Cumberledge of the Manship who subsequently became a principal managing owner and captain of the HCS Neptune as late as 1826. The other is less easy to identify, the Lansdown not being listed as a Company ship after 1788, though she was undoubtedly a chartered Extra-ship. However, it is inconceivable that they were ignorant of the Jane’s plight and one can only assume that if they were not cowards, their zeal to avoid risking their own ships was excessive. Clearly, a bold front would have rescued Stewart from his fate.

Happily, the worthy Stewart was not held long, being landed at Bemblepatam to report to Calcutta, revealing what he knew of Surcouf’s intentions – a good example of merchant masters contributing to the intelligence picture:

Surcouf does not mean to come any more near the Sand Heads, being very much afraid of the Sybille and the Nonesuch (sic), but intends to cruise in the latitude of 19 and 20 degrees…the trade of Bengal will be entirely cut off until they have surfeited themselves with prizes and returned to the Mauritius [as the Île de France was called by the British] to recruit their crews. I have written to Lord Mornington (the [new] Governor-General) a similar letter to this…

Three days after taking the Jane Surcouf ran across two American merchantmen, the Mercury and Louisa. At the time the United States and France were in a state of quasi-war (as a result of French seizures of American ships trading in defiance of the blockade declared by the French government’s First Consul Bonaparte). Surcouf immediately chased and engaged the Louisa, which fired back with her stern-chasers while the Mercury attempted to cross the Clarisse’s stern and rake her. Seeing himself overtaken, the master of the Louisa put his helm over and tried to cross Surcouf’s bow, intending to rake from ahead, but he failed to avoid a collision and as the Clarisse’s bowsprit rode over the Louisa’s deck and entangled in her rigging, over the battered bow of the French corsair swarmed a boarding party at the head of which were the Surcouf brothers. A bloody fight concluded in the capture of the Louisa. Putting Nicolas in command, Surcouf headed after the Mercury, but the Clarisse was so knocked about that he had to abandon the chase and follow his brother back to Port Louis.

On survey, the Clarisse was found to be both damaged and strained, requiring an extensive refit. Surcouf therefore accepted an offer to command La Confiance, a ship-rigged corvette with a fine reputation for speed. In raising a crew for her, however, he found himself in competitions with Dutertre, just then returned from a highly successful cruise and himself recruiting. The two men again fell out, this time over an escalation of bribes offered to likely seamen, and Surcouf challenged Dutertre to a duel. At this Malartic intervened and, after pointing out the only beneficiaries from the death of one of them would be the hated British, the two men embraced and decided to choose their crews by lot.

La Confiance sailed in mid-April 1800 but her cruise got off to a bad start, Surcouf sailing initially for the Sunda Strait where the convoy system denied him any prizes. He next made for the Seychelles, took aboard wood and water and headed for the east coast of Sri Lanka, where he arrived in August. Here he carried off several prizes before evading British cruisers by falling on the Coromandel coast until, at the end of September, he again met the Sybille. Some measures had been taken to disguise the frigate to look like a merchantman and a deceived Surcouf was unable to avoid a close encounter, though he approached her wearing a British red ensign and with a renegade Englishman standing alongside him masquerading as the ship’s master.

Through his ‘interpreter’ Surcouf began a complex explanation of his plight, sending a boat over with instructions to the young ensign in charge of the boat to pull out the plug when half-way between the two ships. As the boat sank Surcouf made sail, calling out to the Sybille that he had no other boat to pick up his men, a subterfuge that succeeded in giving him sufficient of a start to again throw off his pursuer. Having lost the Sybille, Surcouf headed north, capturing two vessels, one of which was the Calcutta Country-ship Armenia, Captain Thomas Meek, before La Confiance arrived off the Sand Heads in early in October. At daybreak on Tuesday the 7th Surcouf’s lookouts spotted a large Indiaman. Issuing a ration of spirits, he treated his men to an exhortation in which he reminded them of the horrors of a British prison-hulk and promised them the pillage of the ship in the offing. They then went to their stations and ran down on their quarry.

In May 1800 the HCS Queen had caught fire off Brazil. Her survivors were taken up by other Indiamen with which the Queen was in company, most of them – including several women and a detachment of troops – ending up aboard the Kent Owned by Henry Bonham, the Kent was commanded by Captain Robert Rivington and bound for Bengal and Benkulen. From Bahia Bay to Bengal her passage, though hampered by the numbers on board, had been untroubled. With its end in sight, she was making up for Balasore Roads when Rivington altered course towards what he took to be the pilot-vessel, hoisting the signal for a pilot. As the two ships closed one another, Rivington backed his main-topsail and lay-to in anticipation of the pilot’s arrival. Deceived to a point, Rivington now noticed the absence of colours flying from the approaching vessel which was not the expected schooner but a ship. He summoned his men to quarters, shotted his guns and fired a warning shot as the stranger passed on the opposite tack. Immediately, the other vessel’s helm went over and she came about to range up alongside the Kent, firing into the large, overcrowded Indiaman.

Rivington found himself embroiled with Robert Surcouf, commanding the frigate-sized corsair La Confiance which, according to the India Telegraph of 18 October 1800 then shot ahead, and passing round the bow of the Kent, renewed her engagement on the other side… She afterwards made sail ahead…of the Kent [when] she was…observed to haul her mainsail up and wear round for the Kent, and for the first time hoisted her national colours. La Confiance then fired a broadside and a volley of musketry from every part of the ship, which was returned by the Kent for as long as her guns would bear; the privateer then wearing around her stern, ranged close up alongside and received a full discharge from Kent’s starboard guns; at this moment the privateer fired a whole broadside and threw a number of hand-grenades from her tops…some of which penetrated the upper deck and burst on the gun deck, at the same time a fire of musketry was kept up from her tops, which killed and wounded a number of the passengers and recruits that were on the quarterdeck and poop; when the ships were completely locked…Captain Surcouf entered at the head of about one hundred and fifty men who ‘jumped by scores from their fore shrouds, fore yard and top, upon the poop and mizen of the Kent’. Surcouf, ‘in the dress of a seaman that he might not be distinguished, was one of the first that boarded’. Along with Rivington, twenty-one others died on the Kent’s bloody deck, including a wealthy passenger named William Cator who left a widow and an orphaned daughter, a young writer named Thomas Graham, an officer of the Bengal army, the Kent’s third and fourth mates and Mr Findlay, her carpenter. By the time the Indiaman’s colours came down concluding an action that lasted for about an hour and three-quarters, the last twenty minutes of which had been hand-to-hand on the Kent’s deck, forty-four persons had been wounded. Among these were Captain Pilkington, aide to General St John, and thirty-four of the Kent’s crew. William Hickey recounts the end of the affair:

Surcouf sent the whole of the surviving passengers, together with the wounded men, under the care of the surgeon of the Kent, to Bengal in a Country merchantman which he captured while conducting his prize to the Isle of France [Mauritius], about fourteen days after taking the Kent. He had behaved with the tenderest humanity to the wounded and with the utmost liberality to the British prisoners in general, especially the ladies whom he treated with every possible degree of respect and generosity.

The Country-ship was Arab-owned and Surcouf’s arrangements were under cartel, the passengers and wounded being exchanged on promise of the release of his own men that he had left in their scuttled boat to the Sybille’s tender mercies. Surcouf, meanwhile, retired with his immense prize to the Île de France. The news of this second major loss of an Indiamen to the charismatic corsair provoked the Governor-General to offer a lakh of rupees for the capture of Robert Surcouf.

In Port Louis Governor Malartic insisted on a consignment of gold dust and ingots in the Kent’s lazarette being a droit of the French state, a development that left the young Surcouf indignant with rage, so-much-so that he had the gold flung overboard. Surcouf was then ordered home, leaving in January 1801. After evading all British attempts to catch him La Confiance arrived at La Rochelle on 13 April and in the following month Surcouf – who appears to have avoided any consequences of his defiance of Malartic – married and settled down in St Malo to enjoy his wealth. Here he remained quiescent for six years.

Surcouf was lucky. His brother Nicolas less so, having been captured when emulating his sibling off the Sand Heads on 13 November 1800 when in command of the Adèle. Captain Webster of H.M. Sloop Albatross sent his captives up the Hughli to Fort William and Nicolas was afterwards sent to England to be incarcerated in the prison-hulk Hero at Chatham. That same month Surcouf’s old rival Dutertre attempted to seize the HCS Phoenix, Captain William Moffat, when the Indiaman was outward-bound. As the Phoenix approached the privateer a suspicious Moffat sent his men to quarters and, as the Général Malartic attempted to run alongside, her men swarming into her rigging to board the larger ship, Moffat’s gunners poured in a broadside and Dutertre was compelled to strike his colours. His ship was carried a prize, and he a prisoner, into the Hughli which, but a few days before, he had almost succeeded in blockading by capturing upwards of a dozen Country-ships.

Perraud was to be among the French corsairs to reappear in the Indian Ocean in the post-Trafalgar period and a brief notice must be taken of these events which affected both Indiamen and Country-ships. Perraud captured the Bombay Marine’s cruiser Viper and unsuccessfully fought the Teignmouth, Lieutenant Hewitson. Along with Perraud was Surcouf, whom we left in St Malo with his bride in 1801. There he might have remained, fitting out his own privateers as an armateur, had the fate of his brother Nicholas not reignited both his patriotism and his Anglophobia which, combined with his acumen and cupidity, was to prove potent. Nicholas Surcouf had endured his confinement amid the assorted horrors of the prison hulk Hero at Chatham and in August 1801 he had been exchanged by cartel. Having by his incarceration conceived such a hatred of the English, when hostilities were renewed in May 1803, Nicholas impetuously accepted a new command, the 38-gun corsair La Fortune. Reaching the Indian Ocean he made two successful cruises from Port Louis in one of which he captured the Company’s 14-gun brig Fly, Lieutenant Mainwaring. However, before the Company could retaliate, Nicholas Surcouf again fell into the hands of his enemy, La Fortune being taken by H.M. Frigate Concorde. Hearing of his brother’s fate Robert left his wife, threw up the business of an armateur – in which he was squandering his fortune – and returned to sea in a newly built vessel, the 18-gun Revenant. Robert had refused a commission as a commodore of a frigate-squadron offered by Napoleon himself, preferring profitably independent command on his own terms.

He arrived at Port Louis in June 1807 and left again in September to cruise off the Sand Heads and in the Bay of Bengal. Here he snapped up Country-shipping, preying upon the rice-trade between Bengal and Madras in order to keep the Île de France supplied with a staple. For part of the time he operated in company with the frigate Piémontaise prior to her capture while other corsairs were never far away, seeking rich pickings among the merchantmen traversing the bay. The Revenant proved exceptionally fast, enabling Surcouf to evade British cruisers sent against him and so successful was the combined effect of all of this enemy activity that after a loss estimated in excess of £300,000, trade was suspended and ‘an embargo of traffic in and out of Calcutta was maintained for sixty-seven days’.[158] In the end, however, Surcouf was obliged to return to his base on 31 January 1808 having dispersed so many of his men in prize-crews.

After refitting, Surcouf sent the Revenant to sea under his first lieutenant, Joseph Potier de la Houssaye. She had a specific mission: to intercept the large, 64-gun Portuguese man-of-war Concecão de Saõ Antonio. It was known that this ship had struck her lower deck guns into her hold and was loaded with a valuable cargo which she would bear home from Goa to Lisbon. While Surcouf remained in Île de France, De la Houssaye caught and fought the Concecão de Saõ Antonio in June, taking her after a bloody action. Despite the value of the Concecão de Saõ Antonio’s cargo, it was valueless in Port Louis and Surcouf was anxious to get it and what remained of his other captures – including the sums realised from the rice he had seized – through the British blockade of the Mascarene Islands and home to his bankers. However, in Port Louis Governor Decaen was an embittered man, jealous of Surcouf’s wealth and reputation, all of which he disapproved, and frustrated by his isolated post denying him the glories that his contemporaries had garnered during Napoleon’s dazzling campaigns in central Europe. But Decaen was a dutiful Governor and sought to strengthen the islands’ defences against the attack he felt certain would be mounted against them.[159] To this end he requisitioned Revenant on the French state’s behalf.[160] There was an ugly confrontation between the two men, the upshot of which was that Surcouf agreed to give up his ship if he took command of the frigate Sémillante which had been so damaged in an action with HMS Terpsichore that she had been condemned as a warship and bought by the merchants of Port Louis. Renamed the Charles, she would be loaded with the loot from the Concecão de Saõ Antonio and the proceeds of other seizures, including his own, and sailed home by Surcouf. Thus seduced by wealth Surcouf, the doyen of French corsairs whose croiserie en guerre et marchandise had been so troubling to Indian trade, withdrew from the Indian Ocean. After several narrow escapes from British cruisers, he reached France to enjoy a wealthy retirement. Fortunately the privateers Surcouf managed were far less successful than those he commanded and, by 1812, the Royal Navy had turned the tide against the armateurs and their investments. However, for some time yet French privateers cruised in the Bay of Bengal and its approaches: the L’Intreprenante took the Country-ship Clyde, Captain McGall, off Sumatra on 15 July 1809; the Gazelle was in the Indian Ocean twice, in 1807 returning to St Malo in 1808, and again in 1810; while the Général Junot and Fântome were also active, all of them making captures. But the threat was diminishing; resources at Port Louis dwindled while the burden of British and Indian prisoners increased and the French became victims of their own success, distant sufferers from the British blockade which prevented any relief sailing from the great French arsenals of Brest and Toulon.

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