Privateers and Navies versus Merchants

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Privateers and Navies versus Merchants

“USS Bon Homme Richard vs. HMS Serapis on 23 September 1779,” by Anton Otto Fischer

After the declaration of war by the French, matters grew worse increasing the losses of ship-owners, freighters and consignees. The Lydia, Captain Dean, from Jamaica to Liverpool, serves as an example, for she was seized, taken to Maryland and sold with her cargo for £20,400. British privateers were also captured, as we shall see, but typical was the capture of Warren & Co.’s Dragon which, under Captain Briggs, had herself seized a number of rebel American and French ships. One of the latter, taken in February 1779 was La Modeste and she had been secured by members of the Dragon’s crew swimming across to her to take possession, since a the sea was running too high to launch a boat. The Dragon did equally well under Captain Reed the following year but in September 1781, Captain Gardner was obliged to strike her colours to a French frigate and submit to being taken in to Brest.

French frigates were particularly dangerous, often sailing
as fast as a privateer, particularly as wind and sea rose, and usually of far
greater fire-power. The 32-gun British frigate Minerva, having been captured and
commissioned by the French in 1778, fell in with the Belcour of Liverpool,
Captain Moore, in May 1779. Moore bore a Letter-of-Marque and had the previous
year taken a schooner worth £1,000 and a French brig valued at £2,500. Now, on
a passage from Halifax to Jamaica, the tables were turned and Moore found
himself fighting for his life.

We engaged [the Minerva]…full two hours and a half, the
furthest distance she was off was not more than pistol shot, a great part of
the time yard arm and yard arm, as we term it, but that you may better
understand it, her sides and ours touched each other, so that sometimes we
could not [with]draw our rammers. The French, I assure you, we drove twice from
their quarters, but unluckily their wads set us on fire in several places, and
then we were obliged to strike. You may consider our condition, our ship on
fire, our sails, masts and rigging being all cut to pieces, several of our men
severely mangled. The French seeing our ship on fire, would not come to our
assistance for fear of the ship blowing up, as soon as the fire reached the
magazine, which it did five minutes after I was out of her. The sight was
dreadful, as there was(sic) many poor souls on board. You will be anxious to
know how we that were saved got out of her. We hove the small boat overboard in
a shattered condition…and made two or three trips on board the frigate before
she [the Belcour] blew up. The next morning, we picked up four men that were on
pieces of the wreck…

Moore goes on to list the dead: the third mate, the surgeon
and his mate, eleven seamen, ‘three Negroes and a child, passengers’.

Another successful French frigate was the 28-gun L’Aigle
which, in the spring of 1780 took the Liverpool privateer Tartar, Captain
Butler, ‘after a chase of eight hours and an engagement on one hour and a
quarter’. In three weeks L’Aigle seized nine prizes, a fact lamented by Butler
from prison in Bayonne in a letter to his ship’s owners. A heavier French
cruiser, the Fripon of 44-guns, took the privateer Patsey off the Hebrides on
31 May 1781. During a fight lasting ninety minutes before her colours came
down, Captain Dooling, his sailing master and six of the Patsey’s crew were
killed and a number wounded. That October a French 44-gun frigate engaged the
merchantman Quaker off Newfoundland. Despite her pacifist name, the Quaker’s
master, Captain Evans, had furnished her with a Letter-of-Marque and in the
autumn of 1781 she had arrived at Halifax with a 13-gun American privateer as
her prize. Early the following year she took three prizes in to Antigua where
they realised £21,000 and it was while returning north that, again on the Grand
Banks, she fell in with the French frigate in a fog. Undaunted, Evans exchanged
a broadside – in which one of the ship’s boys was killed and another wounded –
then made all sail. After a chase of twelve hours Evans threw his pursuer off
and got clear away and in the New Year of 1783 he captured another prize, a
Letter-of-Marque brig from Martinique to France with a cargo of sugar, coffee
and cocoa worth £10,000. Such men were redoubtable and one of the most renowned
was Nehemiah Holland.

In July 1777 Captain Nehemiah Holland of the Sarah Goulburn,
who had distinguished himself in the previous war, took the Sally of
Charleston, South Carolina, when on her way to Nantes with rice and indigo.
Throughout the war the trade between the rice plantations in North America and
France was a rich hunting-ground for British privateers, capitalising on the
rebel necessity to establish new markets for their produce. Tea, silk and wine
went the other way and several privateers would form an ex officio squadron,
agreeing to share prize money. In the winter of 1778/9 the Liverpoolmen Molly,
Captain Woods, the Wasp, Captain Byrne, and the Bess took a number of prizes,
though the Molly was, long afterwards, captured by a brace of French frigates.
Captain Ash of the 20-gun Terrible seized two valuable prizes on a single day
that spring, and also recaptured the Leinster Packet, which had been taken by
the American privateer Rocket the previous day when bound from Bristol to
Galway. A few days later, on 28 February, Captain Grimshaw, in command of Hall
& Co.’s 14-gun Griffin, entered the Mersey with a French prize, Le Comte de
St Germain which he had captured after a spirited running action lasting eight
hours. The two vessels had been evenly matched in fire-power, though the
Frenchman carried a smaller complement. The prize contained a cargo of
tortoise-shell, indigo, sugar, molasses, coffee, cotton and cocoa. Other
privateers profiting from this trade route were Wagner & Co.’s Dreadnought,
Davenport’s Sturdy Beggar; and Captain Allanson’s aptly-named Vulture. However,
success itself ran its own risk, as Captain Leigh of the Mary Ann discovered.
Having taken thirteen prizes valued at £10,000, the Mary Ann was homeward-bound
when she struck the Tusker Rock off the east coast of Ireland. Fortunately most
of her cargo of indigo was salved and all her crew saved.

Many privateers, like the Griffin, performed a useful
service in retaking captured vessels from the enemy. On 10 December 1778 the
privateer Atalanta, 16-guns, Captain Collinson, recaptured the brig Eagle from
Newfoundland to Cadiz with fish, and the following winter the Rawlinson and
Clarendon, lying off Land’s End, retook the Weymouth Packet ‘which had sailed
from Jamaica without convoy and had been taken by the General Sullivan
privateer, of Portsmouth, New England’. The importance of recovering such a
vessel, with mails, bills of exchange, currency and so forth is self-evident.
Later, in May 1781, the 10-gun Ferret, Captain Archer, having been seized by a French
corsair, was retaken by the privateer Vulture from Jersey. A few prizes were
recovered by their own people, such as the Grace, Captain Wardley, seized in
the Irish Sea by the privateer Lexington but carried to Torbay instead of
France; and the Lively, which is discussed later. Such exertions were often
risky. When in April 1781 the Balgrove was captured by a French corsair a
prize-crew of sixteen men were put on board. The Balgrove’s mate was unwilling
to submit and, with only four men to help him, overpowered the prize-crew and
took the ship into the Cove of Cork.

Nor had the Royal Navy’s cruisers been idle; taking 203
American merchantmen between 11 July 1777 and I January 1778, and recapturing
fifteen British vessels in rebel hands. Privateers from several British ports
had also done their utmost to counter the enemy, but the anxieties and losses
drove insurance rates inexorably upwards, a state of affairs only exacerbated
by the entry of France into the war, along with her swarms of corsairs, and after
her the other European maritime states. The American privateers, ‘though of
limited naval value, certainly contributed to the Revolutionary cause, striking
at the British merchant class, who, in turn, ventilated their opposition in
Parliament’. This is a naval view, disparaging to the effort and effect of
America’s private war on trade. The function of a nation’s maritime force,
howsoever composed, is to destroy the enemy, attack his commerce and thereby
ruin his economy. This was a view current at the time, for Thomas Jefferson
considered that privateering was a national blessing ‘when a Country such as
America then was, was at war with a commercial nation’. American analysis
concludes that the 676 privateers commissioned under the new ensign of thirteen
red stripes took ‘over 1,600’ British merchantmen. This, of course, excludes
captures by the small but efficient Continental Navy and the very much greater
impact of French corsairs, and of her men-of-war after 1778.

Such was the alarm in high places that all British merchant
vessels were ordered to sail under convoy, though this was never fool-proof.
When the man-of-war Falcon, the escort to a West India convoy, became separated
from her charges, two of the merchant ship-masters, Captains William Buddecome
and George Ross, undertook the defence, for which they received gifts of silver
plate. Convoy, when carried out efficiently, proved its value.

In the third week in September, 1778, it was announced that
all the principal fleets [i.e. mercantile convoys] had arrived safely, namely,
The Jamaica fleet at Liverpool and Bristol; the Leeward Islands fleet at
Plymouth, and the Lisbon and Spanish fleets in the Downs. The arrivals that
week were the largest that had been known for many years. In October the London
underwriters calculated that the losses sustained by the French since the
proclamation of reprisals amounted to upwards of £1,200,000.

When the outward-bound West India convoy sailed in March
1779 it did so under the not inconsiderable escort of two 74-gun
line-of-battle-ships, a 50-gun ship and two frigates. This was not the case in
August the following year when, as will shortly be related in relation to the
East India Company, the combined convoys bound to the East and West Indies were
abandoned by their naval escort commanded by Captain John Moutray and captured
by Admiral Cordoba’s squadrons. Significant among the fifty-two vessels taken
by the Spanish were the Government-chartered victuallers and store-ships, four
of which – the Lord Sandwich, Eliza, Friendship and Brilliant – carried stores
for the army in the Leeward Islands; eleven of them – the Sisters, Nereus,
John, Susannah, Jupiter, Lord North, Eagle, Hambro’ Merchant, Charming Sally,
Charlotte and James and Jane – bore provisions for the naval squadrons in the
West Indies, while the Arwin Galley and Hercules were loaded with ‘camp
equipage and naval stores’. Excepting the five Indiamen captured by Cordoba and
mentioned in Chapter Two, the remaining twenty-nine of his prizes consisted of ‘the

What made the commander of the escort’s conduct so
reprehensible was that shortly before falling in with Cordoba, Captain Moutray
had met a north-bound convoy under Captain George Johnstone in the Romney,
man-of-war. Johnstone, an unpleasant man and afterwards an outspoken MP,
commanded a heavy escort covering ‘forty sail, carrying 10,463 pipes of wine’
homeward from Oporto and it seems he warned Moutray of the activity of enemy
squadrons. Even when he was apprised of enemy ships in the offing on the 8th,
Moutray dismissed them as ‘nothing but Dutchmen’. However, in mitigation, it
should be noted that when Moutray belatedly discovered his error and hoisted
the signal for the convoy to tack and stand to the northward, most of the
merchantmen failed to see or to obey the order and only those that did, the
British Queen, the brig Rodney ‘and two others’, escaped Cordoba. However,
nightfall and a hazy dawn combined with light winds probably prevented most of
the convoy from being aware of Moutray’s signals, an opinion given in evidence
at Moutray’s court-martial by Captain William Garnier of H.M. Frigate
Southampton. Damningly, Moutray did not send either of his two frigates to
recall the convoy, standing away to the north as disaster overtook his charges.

Indeed, between the Spring of 1779 and the late summer of
1780, the enemy struck at British merchantmen with near-catastrophic results.
‘It was,’ according to Gibb in his official history of Lloyd’s, ‘the heaviest
blow that British commerce had received in living memory, the downfall of many
respectable firms and the direct cause of half the underwriters in Lloyd’s
Coffee-House failing to meet their obligations’, a summation Gibb attributes to
one of them, John Walter, who afterwards founded The Times newspaper. A
consequence of this turmoil on the insurance market was that the underwriters,
of whom there were then less than one hundred and who now owned Lloyd’s Coffee
House and had formed the Society of Lloyd’s, revised their standard marine
insurance policy with three enduring additional clauses – waiver, war risks and

Further destruction of shipping contributing to the general
air of ruin was caused by one man in a remarkable twenty-eight day cruise round
the British Isles. Captain John Paul Jones was an unsavoury character, a
renegade Scot who was disliked by his peers, but who possessed a savage
fighting instinct. Born in 1747 in Kirkudbrightshire, he began his career in
the British mercantile marine apprenticed to a Whitehaven ship-owner. On his
first voyage Jones visited his elder brother who had emigrated to take up
tailoring in Fredericksburg, Virginia, opening Jones’s eyes to possibilities in
the colonies. When Jones’s employer went bankrupt his indentures were broken
and Jones shipped in a slaver. By the age of nineteen he had risen to chief
mate but he then gave the trade up in the West Indies. Taking passage home from
Jamaica, Jones took command of the vessel when the master and mate both died.
The ship’s owners granted him and the crew ten percent of the freight and
offered Jones the position of master of the John of Dumfries.

Jones made several voyages to the West Indies in the John,
on one of which he flogged the ship’s carpenter for neglect of duty. The man
afterwards died and Jones was accused of murder by the carpenter’s father and
consequently arrested. Tried in Dumfries, he was acquitted, found employment as
master of the Betsy of London and by 1773 was back in the Antilles. Jones’s
conduct towards his men provoked a mutiny when the Betsy lay off Tobago,
evidence that Jones was typical of the harsher master of his day. His later
apologists claim that in the confrontation the ring-leader of the mutineers ran
upon Jones’s sword but among the seamen of the islands his name stank,
particularly as he avoided facing charges by escaping to lie low in America.
Here he was unemployed until the outbreak of the rebellion, when he went to
Philadelphia to help fit-out the first Congressional man-of-war, the Alfred.
Ingratiating himself with two congressmen involved with establishing what
became the Continental Navy, Jones was offered a commission as lieutenant in
December 1775 and served in the Alfred without distinction until, in 1776, he
was given command of the Providence. It was now that he began to take prizes
with the dash and élan that ultimately ensured his place in the pantheon of
American naval heroes. As a consequence of his success he was given a small
squadron, promoted to captain and repaid the confidence by taking sixteen prizes.

However, Jones was a man of touchy pride and a notion of his
own superior abilities. His placing as 18th on the seniority list of the
Continental Navy irked him and he began to make himself unpopular until
Congress gave him command of the Ranger and sent him to France. Here he was to
have assumed command of a larger, Dutch-built man-of-war, but found the ship
had been given to the French by the American Commissioners in Paris so, leaving
Brest in disgust, he headed for the Irish Sea, landing and raiding Whitehaven
on 27-28 April 1778, burning the shipping in the harbour before crossing the
Solway in an attempt to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk. The earl was disobligingly
absent, so Jones and his crew helped themselves to what they wanted before
heading for the Irish coast. Off Carrickfergus the Ranger fell in with HM
Sloop-of-war Drake. In a furious action in which Jones lost eight killed and
wounded to his opponent’s forty, he took the Drake and returned triumphantly to
Brest on 8 May with another seven prizes. The alarm his raid – particularly
that upon Whitehaven – caused along the British coast was augmented by reports
of sightings of other rebel vessels. Jones’s presence with his prizes in Brest,
demonstrating weaknesses in Britain’s seaward defences as it did, occurred as
the French ministry were meditating revenge upon Britain for her victories of
1759 by a declaration of war. Jones was summoned to Paris for consultations. On
4 February 1779 he was informed that he would be put in charge of a former
French East Indiaman fitting out as a man-of-war which Jones renamed as the
Bonhomme Richard, a tribute to the American envoy in Paris, Benjamin Franklin
who had once edited a New England periodical called Poor Richard’s Almanac.

In addition to the Bonhomme Richard, Jones was given a small
squadron of French officered, manned and financed vessels with which to repeat
his raid upon the British coast. His French colleagues – officers of the ancien
régime – disliked Jones for his ill-bred manners, regarding him as a parvenu,
but his successes spoke for themselves. Leaving L’Orient on 14 August 1779,
Jones’s squadron returned to the Irish Sea, striking terror by the seizures of
coasting vessels, rumours of which exaggerated the effects of his raid so that
Jones’s successful cruise against merchant shipping around the British Isles
added to the unsettlement of the entire British countryside for the whole of
that summer.

[I]t was announced in the newspapers that the Duchess of
Devonshire, and Lord and Lady Spencer, on their return from taking the waters
at Spa, had arrived safe and sound at Harwich, although their ship had been
attacked on the passage by two French cutters. The enemy had been beaten off by
the Fly sloop, under the command of Captain Garner, after a long engagement in
which an officer of the British vessel had been shot dead, and several of her
crew killed and wounded; and it was allowed on all hands that the ladies had
behaved admirably.

Even the sight of the homeward Jamaica convoy caused confusion
in Brighton, where ‘the quality’ took it for an invasion fleet. The actual and
imminent descent of a combined fleet of French and Spanish men-of-war had been
reported, Spain having opportunistically joined the war in meditation of
recovering Minorca and Gibraltar, and avenging herself for the loss of Florida
and the coast of Honduras. This enemy fleet in the Channel was, in fact, a more
significant threat than that of John Paul Jones (or indeed the Spanish Armada
of 1588) and was aimed at Britain’s naval heart: Portsmouth, but the Combined
Fleet dithered, so it was August before the twin forces of the fleets of France
and Spain, along with Jones’s little squadron, were at large. The British
Channel Fleet under Sir Charles Hardy, operating in misty weather, caught sight
only once of their enemy as they slipped past, and the allies might have
affected the landing so anxiously desired by Choiseul and Vergennes, had not a
lack of supplies exacerbated by outbreaks of scurvy and disagreement between
the French and Spanish commanders forced them to retire. Thus did inefficiency
snatch defeat from the jaws of possible victory.

John Paul Jones had better luck. His ships worked north,
through the Hebrides, where: ‘Our Northern sea-board was everywhere exposed to insult.
The packet which plied from Tarbet to the Western parts of Argyllshire was
captured in the Sound of Islay’. After his appearance before Leith, which he
unsuccessfully attempted to ‘lay under contribution’, townsfolk all along the
coast feared his coming. A public assembly was called in Kingston-upon-Hull to
arrange defences for the River Humber and the Marquis of Rockingham promised to
‘treat the town with a battery of eighteen-pounders’.

Jones’s presence was an affront to the Royal Navy, particularly
when on 23 September 1779 he fell upon a Baltic convoy off Flamborough Head.
Jones’s ships succeeded in defeating the escort, H.M. Frigate Serapis and her
consort, a sloop-of-war, in a fierce, celebrated and bloody action which ended
in the surrender of Captain Pearson and the sinking of the Serapis. Within
hours the shot-battered Bonhomme Richard also foundered, drawing Jones’s teeth,
but he escaped with his prizes to reach the Texel. While Jones had established
a legend, Pearson had at least largely succeeded in defending his convoy and,
at terrible cost, ended Jones’s cruise.

The day after Jones’s victory the French corsair Dunkerque,
Capitaine J.B.Royer, took the merchantman Three Friends of Liverpool, Captain
Samuel Maine, who was caught off the Island of Jura. Not only the French and
the Americans, but the Irish were active, the Black Prince taking the Lively,
Captain Watts, in the English Channel in January 1780. However, a high sea was
running and the prize-crew was unable to board, so Watts was ordered to follow
his captor. He did this until darkness enabled him to run, but two days later
the Lively had the misfortune to be captured by a 44-gun French frigate. Watts
and most of his crew were removed and an officer and twelve seamen were placed on
board, joining three of the ship’s boys who had been left behind. The Lively
now grew leaky and the prize-crew tired of incessant pumping, fell asleep,
whereupon the three boys seized some cutlasses, repossessed themselves of their
ship and, shortly afterwards arriving off Kinsale, making a signal of distress.
This was seen by the local population who opportunistically boarded the Lively
and began plundering her but, with the help of local pilots, the Lively was
brought into port where Captain M’Arthur of the Hercules, a Letter-of-Marque,
took her over and beat off the looters.

The appearance of rebel Irish on their doorstep prompted the
Liverpool merchants to petition the Admiralty for better protection and Their
Lordships responded by increasing the number of cruisers in the Irish Sea by
two frigates and a brace of cutters. There was much need for this. The scandal
of enemy privateers operating in home waters with impunity was bad enough, but
greater opprobrium attached to a navy that failed to protect tax-paying
merchants from a home-grown menace. Although Edward Macartney had lived in
France for some years and his ship, the Black Princess, flew the Bourbon ensign
and carried a French Letter-of-Marque, her commander had been born in Ireland.
Macartney’s Black Princess seized the John of Newcastle off the Mull of
Galloway in July 1780 despite a spirited defence by Captain Rawson and his
crew. Badly hurt and with his second mate also wounded and one man dead, Rawson
hauled down his colours. Taking possession of his prize, Macartney agreed to
the John’s release upon a surety for a ransom of £1,000, a sum which Rawson
considered rapacious, refusing to sign the requisite documents. At this
opposition Macartney withheld the services of a surgeon from the wounded and,
on Rawson’s further protestations, gave the intimidating order to burn the John
and her crew with her. Rawson capitulated. Some time later Macartney was
captured and imprisoned at Plymouth.

A more notorious Irish privateer was Patrick Dowling who
cruised in the Western Approaches and among whose prizes was the Olive Branch outward-bound
from Liverpool to Charleston in 1781. She was ransomed for 7,700 guineas but
Dowling, like Macartney, appears to have adopted extreme measures, perhaps
because unlike his countryman who flew the French flag, Dowling could not avail
himself of the prize-system and was more pirate than privateer. At the time of
his taking the Olive Branch he had on board his own ship some seventeen
‘ransomers’ out of a tally of twenty-two prizes. The five who would not – or
could not – oblige Dowling, were sunk. Clearly Dowling found ransom
satisfactory, restoring his captures to their owners – at a price – and banking
large sums himself, presumably thereby avoiding attracting too much unwelcome
attention. The William of Bristol was released for 900 guineas, the Elizabeth,
bound for Cork raised 800, the Sally for Guernsey 700, and a Maryport vessel
put another 750 guineas in Dowling’s pocket.

Dowling and Macartney were by no means the only Irish
commerce-raiders attacking British shipping in those last years of war. Nor
were the Irish the only practitioners of ransom: the French were equally good
at it. When the corsair Le Comte de Guichen was taken by HM Frigate Aurora,
Captain Collins recovered a sheaf of ransom documents: the Peace of Whitehaven,
2,000 guineas; the Spooner of Glasgow, 1,800; the Six Sisters from the Isle of
Man and Fortitude of Greenock, 1,500 each; the Sally of Strangford, 500
guineas; the two Workington vessels Lark and Glory, 450 between them, with two
other bottoms adding 1,610 guineas to the total.

It was a see-saw war on both sides, but despite the serious
effect the enemy’s war on trade had upon the British economy – the aspect most
emphasised in conventional assessments – the British privateering war on
American trade was itself of some countervailing significance. Our old friend
William Boats, in partnership with William Gregson, commissioned several
privateers and employed a number of energetic and able captains. One of these
was Captain Jolly who in early 1778 commanded the Ellis, in which he took the
Endeavour and Nancy, both loaded with sugar and rum. Later, handing over the
Ellis to Captain Washington, he transferred to the Gregson and then cruised in
company with his old vessel. Both these privateers were substantial, the Ellis
of 340 tons burthen, 28-guns and 130 men; the Gregson of 250 tons, 24-guns and
120 men. Between them they took La Ville du Cap, from St Domingo to Nantes with
sugar, coffee, cotton, rum and indigo, and the L’Aigle from port-au-Prince to
Nantes with a similar cargo. Separating, Jolly next took a small privateer
which he disarmed and released, followed by the snow La Genevieve, outward from
Nantes for St Domingo with flour, wines and a general cargo. Captain
Washington, meanwhile, was busy seizing the snow Josephine, full of oil, soap,
brimstone and straw hats destined for Dunkerque.

Curiously a reduced form of trade between the belligerent
powers sometimes continued, so that a wine merchant in Manchester was able to
learn from his shipper in Bordeaux that:

Very many rich and respectable merchants here, have been
already ruined by the great success of your privateers and cruisers. Many more
must fall soon. May God, of his mercy to us, put an end speedily to this
destructive and ridiculous war.

This contribution of privateers to the general war-effort is
largely ignored by the eulogist extolling the exploits of naval cruisers but
the wine-merchant’s cri de coeur is eloquent enough. On the British side
investment, in prospect of attractive return, was not confined to the usual
ship-owning classes. Short of money, the Marquis and Marchioness of Granby had
an interest in several privateers, including the Lady Granby and the
Marchioness of Granby. Such was the impact of the enemy war on British trade on
the one hand, and British retaliation in the same vein with prizes said to have
been worth £100,000 coming into the Mersey alone.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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