Pemulwuy was a member of the Bidjigal people, one of the Aboriginal tribes who lived on the east coast of Australia.
When the British arrived to colonise his people's ancestral land he fought back. Over 12 years, Pemulwuy led and unending war against the new colony and united multiple Aboriginal tribes under his leadership.
After being shot multiple times and surviving, rumours started that the man had supernatural powers.
Had the British Empire finally met its match?
This 'Forgotten Footnote' episode has been produced in support of 2021 NAIDOC Week!
Anthology of Heroes acknowledges First Nations people and recognizes their
continuous connection to the country community and culture.
The show pays its respects to elders past present and emerging
and honor the sharing of traditional stories passed down through generations.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that this
show may contain names images or voices of people that have since passed away.
It's the 21st of March 1797. In the emerging colony of Sydney Australia
Lieutenant General Watkin Tench and a handful of British redcoats
nervously readied their muskets. Tench yelled to his men to stand firm and
remind them of their duty to the British crown.
Many weren't even soldiers but convicts, criminals really,
armed only out of sheer necessity. In front of the quivering battle line an
angry black mass shouted and gesticulated. Their spears
were sharpened and barbed to ensure extra pain if removed.
Front and center was their leader a man they called Pemulwuy.
Tench knew him well with a clubbed foot and a turned eye he was winning no
beauty contest but covered from head to toe in white
paint the lieutenant general had to admit it was an intimidating sight. The
man had been a thorn in the side of the colony for almost a decade now
and his reputation among his people had risen so high
that he had managed to unite four aboriginal tribes under him.
For all the technology and weaponry at their disposal the British empire was
being outplayed by one determined native. As more and more men joined the frothing
mob Tench knew he needed to act. Stepping slowly
forward with a forced air of confidence he held out his hands his palms facing
downward in a gesture of calm but before he could say a word he got
his response. In under a second a spear hissed through
the air and embedded itself in the chest of the
man standing beside him. As the man gurgled horribly Pemulwuy
stepped forward menacingly. Fire yelled Tench.
You're listening to an anthology of heroes forgotten footnote.
Stories of heroes from nation states that history left behind.
And today is a story about an aboriginal leader from the Bidjigal tribe
who stood tall against the colonization of his land.
Over 12 years he would fight tooth and nail uniting other tribes in a coalition
against the British empire. Devilishly accurate with a spear and
unable to be bought down by bullets his very name evoked fear in the hearts
of white settlers across the east coast of Australia.
This is the story of Pemulwuy.
Out of all the stories we've covered so far Australia's history is
short. A group of tall ships arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1788.
Chock full of convicts of Irish and British descent they were dumped into an
unfamiliar land to build their own prison
and work off the sentence performing hard labor. The colony expanded and the
rest is history. So at the time of writing this that
makes the country 233 years old right? Absolutely not. Australia, its people and
their traditions are some of the most ancient on the planet.
The original inhabitants of Australia known as aboriginals
have called the island home for an obscene amount of time.
Though still debated the general consensus is that these people have
inhabited Australia for at least 50 000 years.
50 000. Estimates even go up to 65 000 while the oldest aboriginal rock art has
been confirmed at 28 000 years old. Let that sink in for a minute. For
reference the great pyramid of Egypt something I consider to be ancient was
built in 2600 bc making it around 4 500 years old.
Only a toddler by comparison to this ancient culture.
In 2016 a man looking for a good place for a toilet break on the side of the
road stumbled into an aboriginal cave dwelling
and came across tools that were 40 000 years old.
Just sitting there as if the owners had only just left.
If this isn't news to you don't worry up until quite recently there has been an
unfortunate tendency to plaster over the achievements and history of aboriginal
culture. When the British colonized Australia it
was much more palatable to think of the country as
empty. And even if it wasn't completely empty
these people who lived there weren't really making use of it. They were a
bunch of hapless scavengers wandering from place to place with no
concept of crops, money or international trade.
With this mindset it's easier to think of colonization more as
enlightenment. The way the British preferred to see it was that
they were here to save these people from themselves.
The idea to establish the colony of Australia came out of
basic necessity. Britain's prisons were too full and the establishment of a base
in this part of the world could serve as a launching pad for
attacks on Spanish possessions in South America.
The man tasked with leading the expedition was Arthur Phillip.
Phillip had originally requested a group of skilled laborers to help establish
farms to, you know, feed them. Instead he was given
just over 700 petty criminals and a few soldiers to keep order.
It was a hard start but Phillip was a good governor and he did his best to
treat the convicts with dignity and turn the place into an actual colony
rather than a prison camp. Initially he took a similar approach with the
aboriginal population who lived in the area.
I've included an interactive map of aboriginal Australia on our socials
to help you understand how incredibly diverse the language and cultural groups
were and continue to be. For each distinctive
terrain across Australia there was a tribe that
thrived there. Mountains, rivers, forests, islands, beaches,
even deserts that to us would be nearly completely incompatible with life.
There were tribes that had perfected the art of surviving there over a millennia.
As the colony of Sydney grew in size, Phillip's goal was to establish friendly
relations with the aboriginal people. There had been sporadic contact with a
few men and women but none could be coaxed into entering
the town and hanging around for a significant period of time.
So as any sensible human would do, Phillip decided to abduct an aboriginal
person instead. The plan was essentially going into a
community and just grabbing two men, throwing them into a boat and paddling
away. Obviously a great start to a friendly
respectful relationship. The journal from the man who was tasked
with kidnapping the two aboriginals says this of the event, quote,
The natives who were very numerous all around us on seeing us
seized these two, meaning the two men, immediately advanced with their spears
and clubs but we were too quick for them. Being
out of reach before they had got to that part of the beach where the boat lay,
they were entering on the beach just as everybody else was in the boat
and as she did not take to the ground we immediately pulled out without having an
occasion to fire a musket, end quote. The two men captured were named Colby
and Bennelong. The two men were shackled and dragged back into town
with Phillip trying to have someone learn their language and teach them
English in return. Colby escaped not long after. Bennelong
hung around for a little longer, picking up a bit of English and
providing Phillip with a token understanding of some basic Euro words
but soon he too escaped. A few months later,
Phillip received word that Bennelong, with a small group of warriors,
was nearby the colony and travelled to meet them. Boldly he approached
Bennelong and another Aboriginal man to introduce himself.
The act was premature though and the other man hurled a spear straight at the
governor, hitting him in the shoulder. A scuffle broke out but Phillip cooled
the situation by insisting that no harm should come to the men.
Maybe he figured, hmm, probably deserved that one to be fair.
As he recovered in hospital over the next few months, Bennelong visited his
bedside and the two eventually became friends.
A journal from a settler who knew Bennelong says about him, quote,
his powers of mind were certainly far above mediocrity.
He acquired knowledge, both of our manners and language,
faster than his predecessor had done. He willingly communicated information,
sang, danced and caped, told us the customs of his country and all the
details of his family's economy. Love and war seemed to be his favourite
pursuits, in both of which he suffered severely,
end quote. As the initial culture shock began to wear off,
Aboriginal men and women began to poke their head into the strange foreign city,
more out of curiosity than anything else. Habits and rituals that seemed so
commonplace to one culture seemed alien to the other. For settlers, the
Aboriginals nakedness was in striking contrast to
their conservative British mindset and once they got past that, small things
like how many Aboriginal women were missing part of their little finger,
which was amputated and thrown into the sea as an offering to ensure good
fortune when fishing. While the Aboriginals observed that the
colony more or less ran on rum, as there was a shortage of
coins, it was this potent alcohol that facilitated the exchange of goods
and, when consumed, relaxed the drinker,
loosened conversation. They also saw that the colony struggled to grow crops
or keep their livestock healthy in a climate that was so foreign to what they
were used to. This gave way to Aboriginal hunters being
paid to provide the colony with food. Both the men and women were expert
hunters on land and sea and you had to catch, clean and cook
almost every animal that was available. And soon European settlers were eating
kangaroo and goanna lizard for the first time.
One of the hunters who started to be a regular face around the camp were the
shadowy figure. The man kept his distance from the
townsfolk and had a notable air of indifference to western culture.
He spent as little time as he could within the colony. Once the meat was
dropped off and he got paid he was gone. The settlers noticed that he had a
blemish in his left eye giving him a somewhat
crazed look and some noted that when he walked it was with a slight limp due to
a clubbed foot. If this was true then this was a
deliberate mutilation performed on him by his tribe to mark him as a
karate or someone with supernatural powers.
His name was Pemulwuy. Aboriginal culture possessed no need for
a written language so unfortunately our record of his life commences when he
began interacting with the colony. But generally a child with such a
striking birth defect like a turned eyeball
may have been killed soon after his birth. The fact that Pemulwuy had
survived up to this point and had even had his foot clubbed
indicated he was a particularly strong individual.
And soon every man woman and child in the young colony would know his name.
For a time a kind of nervous status quo was maintained.
Though each aboriginal and settler had individual feelings about the other
the two civilizations lived in cautious proximity to each other.
But all that changed on the 9th of December 1790.
A few convicts and marines were assembled into a hunting party.
Armed with muskets they set out to the frontiers with the mission to bring back
whatever meat they could find to feed the colony.
Among the group was a man called MacIntyre who held a minor position of
authority under Governor Phillip. Camping out the frontier at 1am the
small group was awoken by rustling in a nearby bush.
Thinking it was a kangaroo MacIntyre quickly worked the other men and went to
investigate. But it was no kangaroo. Peeking through
the scrub were a couple of aboriginal hunters
with spears pointed and ready to fling. MacIntyre's alarm
dissipated quickly though telling his men it's okay I know them.
He dropped his gun to show that he meant no harm and walked slowly towards the
aboriginal men talking to them in their language
which he understood a small part of. The hunters backed away cautiously
spears still primed. Then from out of nowhere a third man appeared
a man with a blemish in his left eye. Without warning the third man hurled
his spear directly into the chest of MacIntyre
who fell backwards. As his hideous screams filled the warm night air
the aboriginal party quickly scattered back into the bush.
Almost immediately the men knew that the wound was fatal.
They managed to carry him back to town where a surgeon confirmed the nature of
the wound. Unable to remove the spear without
causing the dying man immense pain the doctor waited until MacIntyre had
passed. Once he had he discovered the spear tip
was barbed with sharpened stone attached to the main shaft with a glue
made from native plants. This thing had been designed to kill and
cause extreme pain while it did so. Bennelong and Colby arrived at the
man's bedside and confirmed what MacIntyre had shouted in his last moments
of delirious pain. Pemulwuy had done this. But why?
Prior to the incident both Bennelong, Colby and many other aboriginals around
the colony had spoken of their hatred of MacIntyre
and avoided going anywhere near him. Though they never explicitly stated why
there were rumors that MacIntyre had murdered one or a few aboriginals on
his many hunting expeditions, the rumors were so pervasive that the
man was even questioned about them on his deathbed.
In his last few moments of life MacIntyre insisted that he had only shot
one aboriginal once and that was out of self-defense.
Make up your own mind on this one but in my eyes this man probably had blood on
his hands and Pemulwuy's attack was not random
but a calculated revenge hit. Whatever the reason the killing of
MacIntyre ushered in a violent new era of colonial life.
Governor Phillip in a knee-jerk reaction ordered a huge expedition party be
assembled. Totalling around 50 men it was the first
army the colony had ever put together. It was to be led by a man called Wat
Kintench whose journal provides a good portion of the source material we've
used for this episode. The governor ranted to Tench that since
the birth of the colony 17 settlers had been killed by aboriginals
according to him all of which came from the Bidjigal tribe.
Based on this the tribe was inherently violent and needed to be made an example
of, lest other tribes believe that the
British were weak and followed in Pemulwuy's footsteps.
Tench was ordered to capture 10 members of the Bidjigal tribe
one being Pemulwuy if they could find him. They were to chain them up and
return to colony where they would be hung. In the event
that it was not feasible to bring them back
they were to be executed on the spot by beheading
and then their heads were to be returned to camp to prove the task was done.
The governor had even provided hatchets specifically prepared for the task.
Tench put through a counter proposal to the governor and instead offered to
bring back six Bidjigal warriors, two of whom would be hung and four
others sent to a prison camp and then released.
This way the quote lesson of western punishment would have more staying power.
The proposal was accepted but it didn't matter.
Far from the comparatively cushy shores of the colony
the group floundered through the dry baking heat of interior Australia.
They found no aboriginals except Colby who told them that he had
heard Pemulwuy had fled south. Trying to follow the trail the exhausted group
arrived at an aboriginal village that had been vacant for many days.
Many of the European prisoners who had been conscripted into the expedition
claimed they couldn't go on and needed to rest.
The alien climate of heat and flies was wreaking havoc on them.
Tench reluctantly agreed and the group headed back to Sydney.
But on the way back the party fell into a marsh that almost took the lives of a
few men who sank up to their chests before
having to be pulled out by rope. The expedition had been a complete
failure. But on the outskirts of Sydney they
stumbled across a few aboriginals nicking a handful of potatoes from a
farm. Despite having no evidence that these
people were Bidjigal they fired on them, two of whom later died from their
injuries. While the expedition had achieved little
if anything Pemulwuy had been working his magic with
other local tribes. Aboriginal tribes were not as rigidly
defined as countries in Europe. The land claimed by one tribe may
overlap others. Tribes bordering the other would have
similar languages and with many people being at least partly bilingual.
The members of the tribes themselves would break into smaller groups to
ensure they could gather enough food to live on
and throughout the year all members of the tribe would usually reunite at a
particular time for a cultural or religious ceremony.
It was perhaps at one of these ceremonies where Pemulwuy convinced a few
other tribes to join his resistance. Through his power of persuasion Pemulwuy
was able to fill his ranks with men of the Yura,
Darug and Thuroal tribes. All of these groups were centered
around the Sydney Cove Colony who would have had the most contact with
the Europeans. Lorna Munro an Aboriginal activist,
artist and podcaster said this of the tribal council quote
the surrounding tribes they united because of Pemulwuy.
They united because they knew they had a strong leader and they knew they had
someone that was going to die for them if need be
end quote. Over the next few years Pemulwuy and his newly found allies
would strike from the shadows stopping the growth of the colony.
Pemulwuy's attacks were designed to be fast and unpredictable
hitting the exposed farmlands on the edge of the colony
burning crops houses and farms and killing any cattle they could find.
The message was hard to ignore the British Empire for all its past
achievements was struggling in this part of the world.
Richard Green an Aboriginal land counselor described the situation with a
kind of eloquent simplicity quote black fellas
all around the country were coming along and taking whatever they wanted
big cows sheep they decimated them ate the lot
they left the people of the colony starving and on the brink of desolation
end quote. Maintaining four different tribes focused on a singular goal was an
incredible feat and even as the smallpox began to tear
through the native population Pemulwuy's raid still continued. Usually
he would rely on the settlers fleeing and make off before any serious military
efforts arrived on the scene but in 1795 he almost met his match.
If you've listened to our episode on Antigua and Barbuda
we covered the life of a convict called John Caesar or Black Caesar.
This man had been in the colony for a while and at this day he was assigned to
labor duty. Caesar would have been quite a sight he
was probably the only black skinned convict
and if that wasn't enough he was a big fella with a huge appetite.
Still he didn't scare Pemulwuy. Undeterred the raiding party came
charging in to where Caesar and some other colonists were working
but unlike the other settlers in previous raids Caesar didn't budge.
Pemulwuy charged the enormous man and the two rain blows down upon each other
while the other convicts spurred on by Caesar also stood their ground.
As the two men duked it out Caesar managed to get the upper hand and almost
caved in Pemulwuy's skull. Either through musket shot or the
impact of a pickaxe Pemulwuy copped a severe blow to the
head some sources saying that his skull itself was cracked
but he hadn't got this far in life from being weak. Despite the grievous wound
he and his band of men freed themselves and managed to retreat back into the
bush. Caesar was confident that the wound
would take its toll and confident that he
had finally put an end to the famous Pemulwuy.
But only a few weeks later Pemulwuy was right back in the fray
leading his men to raiding parties on yet more isolated farms
seemingly no worse for wear despite the massive wound that should have killed him.
And with this his legend began. Pemulwuy had always attracted a good deal of
superstition and wonder from his own tribe.
Remember he likely had his foot clubbed as a testament to his perceived
supernatural ability. But after this encounter the settlers
began to indulge in their own theories about the man.
Far away from their home in this strange foreign land the minds of the townsfolk
began to wander. Maybe this man had perhaps tapped into
some kind of ancient power that was beyond their comprehension.
Perhaps Pemulwuy wasn't able to be killed by European weapons.
As the budding colony began to stabilize its borders pushed into what was
undeniably aboriginal land, specifically Darug land.
The Darug tribe relied on a cultivated crop similar to what we would call a yam
or sweet potato. Good cultivatable land was rare around
the colony and so it's no surprise that this was
the first place the settlers began to encroach upon.
The natives yams were torn up and the European corn was planted in its place.
The takeover was handed with the subtleness of a bull in a china shop.
Aboriginal men women and children were more or less told to clear off and find
somewhere else to live. It didn't matter where but it couldn't
be here. And sometime over the course of the day
an aboriginal child was shot dead. This event led to an increase of raids
over the next few months and alarmingly the raiding party seemed
to be getting larger and better coordinated.
Pemulwuy was clearly pulling the strings in the background and more
disgruntled aboriginal tribes were now seeking him out to join the cause.
As harvest time for the corn began to draw near the Darug people organized
about 50 warriors who were either planning to steal or burn
the crop that had taken the settlers so many months to mature.
Word of this plan leaked to Governor Philip who was incredibly concerned that
as these crops were now becoming the primary food source the colony may
starve if the raid was successful. 62 men were deployed to the perimeter
and during the night a Darug camp was sighted.
The settlers opened fire killing eight aboriginals.
This once again sparked a kind of tit-for-tat warfare
with many bands of warriors from a number of tribes now bent on revenge
against the colony, the loved ones that were killed.
The thin veneer of peaceful coexistence that Governor Philip had tried to
cultivate had been completely blown off. There was no room for neutrality now. You
were either on Pemulwuy's side or England's. Hunting parties sent out
from Sydney were particularly vulnerable. Settler accounts give descriptions of
aboriginals butchering any isolated men they came across
and hanging their entrails on spears leaving their mutilated bodies as a
grisly warning. Aboriginals became a rarer site within
the colony. It was best to keep away unless you'd be accused of spying for
Pemulwuy. For Governor Philip the situation was
becoming too much for him. His job was to stabilize and expand the
colony but the combined hostility of the tribes
as well as their unity made this an almost impossible task with
the manpower he had available. Pemulwuy would never come to the
negotiating table and without that there could be no truth.
The months turned into years but still there was no peace in the colony.
Governor Arthur Philip eventually returned to England taking his old
friend Ben along with him. Finally in 1797 things came to a head
near the modern day city of Parramatta. Pemulwuy had gathered a huge war band of
around 100 men. With the confidence of numbers it was
the first time he was to give a kind of pitched battle to the British. Instead of
ordering retreat when the British troopers showed up
Pemulwuy hurled the first spear. The colonial militia lined up in battle
formation and opened fire. As the whiz of spears and bullets cut
through the air the technological gap between the two civilizations was made
as clear as day. The battle raged on but it was clear the
aboriginal warriors were dropping faster. Pemulwuy as usual was not one to keep
himself out of harm's way and was shot multiple times but still
continued fighting. But as the losses mounted and they ran
low on spears to throw the war band broke and fled back to the
safety of the interior. The battle of Parramatta as it became
known left 55 dead, 32 aboriginals and 13 settlers.
In the aftermath a British trooper came across the body of a man with a clubbed
foot and turned eye. Pemulwuy had been shot an unbelievable
seven times but he was still alive just barely.
Pemulwuy was scooped up from the battlefield and was transported to the
colony hospital where he was expected to pass away soon.
With almost as many bullets in him as 50 cent
every day his bedside doctor predicted his demise
but he lingered. So much so that as a precaution
leg irons were slapped on him and with every day he looked
better, more healthy. Then one day once the morning sun rose
he was gone. Despite being full of bullets
with a cracked skull and wearing leg irons he had somehow managed to escape
in one of the most secure and well guarded places in the colony.
His jailers were stupefied. By all logic this man should be dead
or at very least permanently disabled. This further fueled speculation of the
man's supernatural abilities and truth be told if I was there I'd
probably start believing them myself. Against all odds six months later
Pemulwuy was back at the head of his men but his plethora of wounds had clearly
weakened him. There were no more pitched battles like
Parramatta. Maybe some of his tribal allies had deserted the cause
or perhaps the length of the war which was now almost 10 years
had thinned the ranks of available recruits. Whatever reason
small scale infrequent hit and runs became the norm again.
Even so his appeal was still widespread with now two white convicts raiding
alongside he and his men. His son Tedbury may also have started to
be more involved in the attacks at this time.
Perhaps all were now starting to see the signs of this legendary figure beginning
to slow. His lifetime of hard fighting was
finally catching up to him. Gallons of rum were offered to anyone
who could capture him but still the raids on the frontier farms continued.
Every expedition that was sent to find him came trudging back from the bush a
few men short barely catching a glimpse of anything
suspicious until the very last second before they were attacked.
But finally after 12 years of resistance a great Pemulwuy's luck finally ran dry.
During a raid he was shot and killed by a sailor named Henry Hacking.
In order to claim the reward for his death and to prove finally and
definitively he had been killed the sailor then cut off the man's head
and sent to the governor. The head was pickled and sent back to England
with a simple epitaph reading quote although a terrible pest of the colony
he was a brave and independent character end quote.
Pemulwuy's death marked the end of organized resistance to British rule by
Australian aborigines. Though many had and would continue to
defend their lands none could seem to rally the tribes in the way Pemulwuy had.
In the same way Genghis Khan you know the Mongols or
Skanderbeg you know the Albanians it takes a very unique type of person to
inspire others to move in one direction for a perceived greater good.
Pemulwuy had managed to cut through political and social barriers
and move four different tribes together for a common goal
and keep it going for an unbelievable 12 years.
Aboriginal scholar Eric Wilmette says this of Pemulwuy quote
this war wasn't a scrap between a bunch of Bidjigals and a bunch of British
this was a war of worlds of two different worlds
the British believed in their world and Pemulwuy believed in his
end quote. In the years after Tedbury Pemulwuy's son did his best to keep his
father's legacy alive but never achieved the kind of fame he did
he was executed eight years later and slowly but surely the colony expanded
into the interior. The legacy of Aboriginal Australia
continues to this day as it rightfully should however it's
only recently that some of the atrocities committed against the
original custodians of this land have been acknowledged in any form.
Tasmania the small island below the east coast of Australia
experienced such a decline in Aboriginal population that the word genocide has
been thrown around while in Western Australia in the early
1900s Aboriginals were chained up and used to help find the location of wells
in particularly dry parts of Australia and for 50 years from the 1910s to the
1960s a government policy forcibly removed
many Aboriginal children from their parents to be re-housed elsewhere
claiming that they were not being cared for correctly. Those that were relocated
are referred to today as the stolen generation. It's not within the scope of
this podcast to deep dive into all the examples of this but
I wanted to try and showcase that the concerns Pemulwuy may have had about
exploitation were at very least partly warranted.
In the 1930s a protest event led by an Aboriginal community
led to the creation of NAIDOC Week which this episode was credited in honour of
NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day
Observance Committee and this is a weekly long celebration across Australia
that celebrates Aboriginal people's achievements.
Each year during this very week the stories of Pemulwuy and other Aboriginal
leaders are told and retold to younger generations.
In the late 1980s the folk band Red Gum wrote a song called
Water and Stone about Pemulwuy. I'll have the link to the full song on our
website but some particularly powerful lyrics go like this
a thousand pities fell like rain the day the world changed colour
tears of rage filled our eyes and ears were ringing
with Pemulwuy's song. In the last 20 years or so there has been a revisionist
look at Aboriginal people's relations to the land.
The persistent colonial idea of them being hapless wanderers is beginning to
melt away as interest in Aboriginal foods methods
cultivation and fire control are being re-examined.
If this is something you'd like to learn more of I've added a fascinating book
that goes into detail about this on our website.
Since Pemulwuy's death all those years ago there's been a growing collective
call from the Aboriginal community of Australia to have his skull returned
where it belongs. In 2010 Crown Prince William announced
that he would have the skull returned and there seemed to be a genuine effort
made to locate it but eventually the trail went cold. It's
likely that somewhere in the archives of the National History Museum of London
the skull of this brave indigenous warrior sits
waiting to be rediscovered and sent back to the country he fought so hard for.
I'll take us out with another quote from Eric Wilmot.
As the Europeans explored and expanded their domains in the 16th,
17th and 18th centuries they created many enemies
some weak, some powerful but none more implacably hostile or uncompromising
than the Australian Pemulwuy.
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