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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

by
George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 14

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

p203 XIII
Minor Operations

The War with Algiers

The war with Tripoli had put an end to all paying of tribute by the United States to that principality, but ever since the treaty of 1795 we had been sending annual tribute to the Dey of Algiers. The return of the Hornet to the United States, in 1807, left the Mediterranean without a single American man-of‑war; and after the Leopard incident in 1807 the American Navy was confined so closely to home waters, on account of impending war with Great Britain, that one year succeeded another without the appearance of an American cruiser before Algiers. Encouraged by this situation, the Dey seized three American merchantmen, late in 1807, on the excuse that his tribute of naval stores was overdue. The crew of one of these ships, the Mary Ann, managed to kill their Algerian prize crew and retake their vessel, but the other two were brought into port. Scarcely had the matter been settled by cash payment for arrears, when the Dey demanded $18,000 for the nine Algerians who had been the prize crew of the Mary Ann. Consul Lear had to pay this, also, in order to avoid instant declaration of war.

In 1808, this Dey was assassinated, as was his successor the year following. Early in 1812, the reigning Dey received a special envoy from the British Government, presenting a friendly letter from the Prince Regent himself. Feeling now that he had the support of Great Britain, the Dey decided that he could safely assume a hostile attitude towards the United States. When the Alleghany arrived in July with the tribute of naval stores, p204he instantly found fault with them. There was some tribute money — less than $16,000 — still in arrears, but he demanded $27,000, on the ground that, by the Mahommedan reckoning (354 days to a year) seventeen years and a half had elapsed since the treaty of 1795, instead of seventeen. He gave Consul Lear five days in which to make the payment, with the alternative of going into slavery, together with all other American residents and the crew of the Alleghany. The consul finally borrowed the money at twenty-five per cent interest from a Jew in Algiers, and, with three other American residents, left the country on the Alleghany.

Fortunately the expectation of war with England had kept American merchantmen out of the Mediterranean, so that when the Dey sent out his cruisers they took only one brig, the Edwin. Her crew of ten were sold into slavery. During the war with England, efforts were made to ransom them, but without success.

The conclusion of peace with Great Britain left the United States free to deal with Algiers, and Congress acted promptly. On March 2, 1815, war was declared against Algiers and two squadrons were ordered to the Mediterranean. One, which was to assemble at Boston, was placed under the command of Commodore Bainbridge, and the other, at New York, under Commodore Decatur. The latter squadron got to sea, first, on May 20. It consisted of the frigates Guerrière,1 44, flagship; Constellation, 36; Macedonian, 38; the sloops Epervier, 18, and Ontario, 16; and the brigs Firefly, Spark, and Flambeau, each 14 guns. Of these the Firefly was so badly damaged by a gale that she had to put back to New York.

Before entering the Mediterranean, Decatur made inquiries of the American consuls at Cadiz and Tangiera p205as to the whereabouts of Algerian cruisers, and learned that a squadron had just entered the straits under the command of the Algerian admiral, Rais Hammida. Decatur touched at Gibraltar only long enough to communicate with the American consul, and then set off in pursuit, hoping to take the Algerians by surprise.

On June 17, the Constellation sighted a large frigate off Cape de Gat and signaled an enemy. Decatur immediately ordered English colors hoisted to deceive the Algerian, but the mistake of a quartermaster on the Constellation in sending up American colors gave the corsair warning and she made all sail to escape. The Constellation then opened fire, and the Algerian, apparently giving up the idea of making the port of Algiers, suddenly wore ship to reach the neutral waters of Spain. This maneuver brought her close to the Guerrière, and Decatur, laying aboard, delivered two broadsides. This fire did such execution that it drove below decks all the survivors of the crew but the musketeers in the tops, and killed Rais Hammida himself. Seeing that the Algerian frigate was making no resistance, Decatur ceased firing and drew a short distance away. The little Epervier, however, under Captain John Downes, came up on the starboard quarter of the enemy, who was trying to escape, and, by skilful maneuvering, held this position, delivering nine broadsides. This forced the frigate to come up into the wind and surrender. She proved to be the Mashuda, 44 guns, the flagship of the Algerian fleet.

Two days later the squadron drove an Algerian brig ashore, and on the 28th arrived at Algiers. Decatur immediately sent to the Dey the terms of a treaty which he insisted should be ratified at once, threatening, in case of delay, to capture every Algerian ship that tried to enter the port. The loss of the Mashuda, together with the death of Hammida, had its effect on the Dey. On the p206appearance of an Algerian cruiser, whose capture by Decatur was only a matter of minutes, he sent out a boat in great haste to give word of his assent.

Thus, by Decatur's dashing methods, peace was concluded with Algiers in less than six weeks from the time the squadron left New York. The Treaty provided for no tribute in the future, the instant release of American captives, the restoration of American property seized by the Dey, the payment of $10,000 for the brig Edwin, the emancipation of every Christian slave who should escape to an American man-of‑war, and the treatment of captives, in case of a future war, not as slaves, but as prisoners of war, exempt from labor.

After settling with Algiers in this masterful style, Decatur proceeded to Tunis and Tripoli, having learned meanwhile that these states had permitted British men-of‑war to recapture American prizes in their waters. From Tunis he exacted $46,000 — the estimated value of the prizes taken there — and from Tripoli $25,000 with the added condition that ten Christian slaves should be liberated. Two of these were Danes, selected by Decatur out of gratitude to the Danish consul, Nissen, who had shown so much kindness to the captives from the Philadelphia.b

Meanwhile, Commodore Bainbridge had sailed with his squadron from Boston, July 3. With characteristic bad luck, he arrived at Gibraltar only in time to discover that Decatur, his junior, had done all that needed to be done, and had carried off all the glory. Nevertheless, he took his squadron to the Barbary ports to reinforce the impression left by Decatur. As it was no longer of any advantage to Great Britain to subsidize Algiers, she dispatched, the following year, a large fleet under Lord Exmouth to bombard the city. That blow ended the pretensions of the Barbary states to special privileges in piracy and Christian slavery.

p207 Suppression of Piracy in the West Indies

We have already seen the extent to which French privateers, in the closing years of the 18th century, preyed on American ships in the West Indies and even in our own waters, eventually bringing on our war with France. These privateers were, to all purposes, pirate craft, which used the French colony of Guadeloupe as their base of operations. During the West Indian campaigns against France, the pirates were checked by British and American men-of‑war, but by no means exterminated. The capture of Guadeloupe by the British in 1810 drove them from their refuge; but they found other rendezvous in the Gulf coast, where some resorted to smuggling and others continued their piracy.

The bayous of Louisiana were especially adapted to their profession, and here the celebrated brothers Lafitte made their headquarters for preying on the commerce of the coast. The war with Great Britain saved them from interruption by American authorities till September, 1814, when Master-Commandant Patterson, with six gunboats and a schooner towing several barges of troops, attacked and destroyed ten of the pirate vessels. The Lafittes, with some of their followers, escaped to New Orleans, where, oddly enough, they offered their services to General Jackson and fought under him in the famous defense of that city in January, 1815. One of the brothers went afterwards to Texas, where he resumed his profession. As late as 1822, his name was the terror of every skipper on the Gulf.

The Lafittes were not the only pirates in this region in the decade after the war. There were French and Spanish privateersmen, and — it must be admitted — some American as well, to whom the business of robbing merchantmen was too agreeable to give over on conclusion of p208peace. Nearly all of these obtained letters of marque from some Spanish colony in revolt, as Venezuela, for example, and used them for protection against capture by a man-of‑war. This abuse grew to such proportions that scarcely a ship passed through the Gulf or the Caribbean without at least one desperate adventure with these so‑called privateers.

In 1819, the United States took action by sending a squadron to the Gulf under the command of Commodore Oliver H. Perry, the hero of Lake Erie. He went directly to Angostura, Venezuela, to open negotiations concerning the matter of Venezuelan letters of marque. But there he was suddenly taken ill with yellow fever, and died on the way to Trinidad. His death ended the eexpedition without result.

Further efforts in the year 1821‑22, by a squadron under Commodore James Biddle, made a good beginning. One small gunboat, the Shark, distinguished herself by capturing four pirate craft and aiding in the capture of a sixth. Her commander was Matthew C. Perry, a younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry, and famous later for his mission to Japan. To continue the work, the Government dispatched another squadron the following year, February, 1823, commanded by Commodore David Porter. He was accompanied, as in the Essex days, by his adopted son, David G. Farragut.

This service in the West Indies was beset with difficulties. In order to destroy the pirates it was necessary to make land attacks upon their strongholds. Frequently the ground was almost impassable, and the Americans advanced in constant danger of ambush. Further, the yellow fever, which had recently been brought to the West Indies by the slaves, proved a far more dangerous enemy than the pirates themselves. In the midst of his campaign, Commodore Porter was forced for a time to p209withdraw his entire squadron to Key West on account of the epidemic. It cost him one of his best officers, Lieutenant Watson; indeed, he himself lay for some days at the point of death. Perhaps the greatest obstacle, however, was the fact that many, if not most, of the Spanish officials were secretly hand in glove with the pirates, as they were then and later with the slavers.

An instance of this duplicity was the famous "Fajardo case." In October, 1824, Lieutenant Platt, commanding the schooner Beagle, was informed that $5000 worth of goods had been stolen from the American consul at St. Thomas. As the robbers were reported to have taken a boat for Fajardo, Porto Rico, Lieutenant Platt sailed for that place. On going ashore to explain his errand, he was insulted by the officials of Fajardo and thrown into prison.2 After a long and deliberation, enabling the stolen goods to be put safely out of the way, the "alcalde" allowed Lieutenant Platt to return to his ship. As soon as the commodore heard of the affair, he proceeded to Fajardo with a large force. The Spaniards, who had prepared a defense, deserted their guns and ran at the approach of the American seamen and marines. Porter spiked the battery that had been thrown across the road, and proceeded to the outskirts of the town. Under a flag of truce, he sent a demand for the officials of the town to appear and make instant and public apology to Lieutenant Platt. This they hastened to do, with the humblest promise of good behavior in the future toward all American officers. Thereupon Porter retired to his ship, having settled the whole affair in less than three hours.

Although Spain had made no protest whatever, this p210impulsive conduct offended the Secretary of the Navy, as being an offense against neutral rights, and Captain Porter was ordered home in December, 1824, to explain his action. By this time, however, he had so thoroughly done the difficult work intrusted to him that the year 1824 may be said to be the last in which the black flag was seen in the West Indies.

On reaching the United States, Porter found that he had to face court-martial on account of his conduct at Fajardo. Unfortunately, there were some members of the court who were reputed to be personally hostile to the commodore, notably the president, James Barron. At least, Porter believed that the latter bore a grudge against him because he had been a member of the court that suspended Barron for the affair of the Chesapeake and the Leopard. At all events, the court found Commodore Porter guilty of "disobedience of orders and conduct unbecoming an officer," and suspended him from the service for six months. The court added, however, that the "censurable conduct" of the accused was due to an "anxious disposition on his part to advance the interest of the nation and the service."

Strictly speaking, there is no question but that the landing of an armed force on Spanish soil, except in pursuit of actual pirates, was an act of hostility and unauthorized by the United States Government; but to many who were acquainted with the ways of West Indian officials the circumstances were an ample justification. Porter naturally felt that the sentence was unjust, and resigned. Shortly after, he accepted the command of the naval forces of Mexico, but after three years of this service he left in disgust and returned to the United States. President Jackson then appointed him consul-general to Algiers and later minister-resident to Turkey, in which office he died in 1843.

p211 Commodore Porter's name is associated chiefly with his celebrated cruise in the Essex, but it should be remembered that by abolishing in one year the long-established piracy of the Gulf and Caribbean, he performed a task far more difficult and hazardous.

The Slave Trade

Although the Constitution forbade the prohibition of the slave trade to the United States prior to year 1808, Congress, as early as 1794, passed an act prohibiting the export trade and providing for the humane treatment, during their passage, of slaves imported into the United States. In 1800 it was made a crime, punishable by two years' imprisonment and a fine of $2000, for any American citizen to engage in the slave trade. In 1808, the trade was prohibited entirely, and in 1820 it was declared piracy and punishable by death. Our men-of‑war were ordered to take slavers wherever found. A bounty of twenty-five dollars a head was offered to the captor for every slave on board.

In spite of these severe measures, the slave trade increased enormously for two principal reasons; first, the great profits in the business, and second, the carelessness of United States authorities. As an example of the first, in 1835 the Baltimore schooner Napoleon, of ninety tons, delivered in one voyage 350 slaves. These cost $16 a head on the African coast and sold at $360 each in Cuba. As for the second, although the slave trade was declared piracy, scarcely a week passed in the decade before the Civil War when a slaver did not leave New York harbor; and the first American slave trader hanged as a pirate went to his death in November, 1861, after the Civil War had begun.

The efforts of our navy to suppress the traffic were p212weakened by several conditions. For a number of years the courts in England and America would convict a slaver only when the negroes were actually on board. The result of this ruling is exemplified in the case of the slaver Brilliante. On one of her trips, in 1831, her captain found himself becalmed and surrounded by four British cruisers. Anticipating being boarded if the wind did not rise, he stretched on deck his entire chain cable, suspended it clear of everything, and shackled it to his anchor, which hung on the bow ready to drop. To this chain he lashed his 600 slaves. He waited for a breeze till he heard the oars of the British boats close at hand, when he cut away the anchor. As it fell, it dragged overboard the entire cable with its human freight; and, though the British heard the screams of the victims and found their manacles still lying on the deck, because there were no slaves left on board the officers had to leave the vessel amid the jeers of her captain and crew.3

It was not long after this incident when the preposterous ruling was set aside in favor of common sense. A more serious obstacle to the suppression of the trade arose from the unwillingness of the United States to co‑operate heartily with Great Britain. In 1824 the English Parliament declared the slave trade piracy, though the foundations of Liverpool's commercial greatness had been only recently laid by the profits of her slavers. England soon went still further by asking and gaining the co‑operation of several of the European powers in suppressing the slave traffic to their colonies. But when she made an appeal for a mutual right of search to be exercised by United States and British cruisers upon the merchantmen of England and America in the "Middle Passage" she met with an indignant refusal. Those who were financially p213interested in the trade raised the cry of "sailors' rights," and appealed to the principles of the War of 1812.

This patriotic clap-trap succeeded; and as the American ships were the only ones safe from British search, almost the entire slave trade passed under the protection of the American flag. Although in 1842 the United States, in a treaty with England, agreed to maintain a squadron of not less than eighty guns off the African coast, the Secretary of the Navy in his instructions to the commodore laid more emphasis on the necessity of preventing any attempted search of American ships by English cruisers than on capturing slavers. Accordingly, the commander of this squadron, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, cruised about without finding a single slaver. Meanwhile, every English officer who boarded a slaver was obliged to leave with an apology if the captain could show American papers, real or forged.

Early in the fifties Lieutenant-Commander Andrew H. Foote captured two slavers off the coast of Africa. On his return he wrote a book, Africa and the American Flag; and this book, by describing the hideous conditions of the traffic and the protection it received from the American ensign, did more to stop the abuse than all the American squadrons put together. It opened the eyes of the Americans to the fact that their flag had become the symbol of the slave trade.

During President Buchanan's administration the Government was secretly anxious to bring about the annexation of Cuba. In order to create a sentiment of some sort on which to base an appeal to the nation, especially to the anti-slavery sections, the Secretary of the Navy ordered American naval vessels to cruise in Cuban waters and capture slavers there. In spite of Spain's formal renouncement of the slave trade, made under pressure from England, it was common knowledge that Cuba was p214the most profitable slave market in the world, for the black-mailing charges of the Cuban officials were so low as not to interfere seriously with the great profits of the business. In the year 1860 alone, twelve Cuban slavers were captured by our men-of‑war, although that was insignificant compared with the actual number of slavers that were landing negroes at various points along the coast. One great difficulty was the fact that the slavers, usually American-built "clipper" ships, or sometimes converted yachts, could easily outsail a man-of‑war. At all events the trade was never so flourishing as in the five years preceding the Civil War.

During that time the pro‑slavery men were making active efforts to repeal all existing legislation against the slave trade, most of which was admittedly dead-letter. But the change of administration and the outbreak of war altered the situation. The limited right of search asked by England was readily extended in 1862, enlarged in 1863, and in 1870 extended still further. From the moment the United States showed a sincere desire to allow her navy to co‑operate with the British, the slave trade was doomed.

The Mutiny on the Somers

In the fall of 1842, the brig Somers, 10 guns, was ordered to the African coast with dispatches for Commodore Perry's squadron. On her return trip to New York, November 26, the purser's steward got word to the captain, Commander Alexander Slidell MacKenzie, that Acting-Midshipman Philip Spencer had tried to induce him to join a conspiracy to seize the ship, murder all the officers, together with such of the crew as would not be wanted, and turn pirate.

At first, Commander MacKenzie laughed at the story p215as a boy's joke, but since the bearing of the crew had been insubordinate from the time they left Madeira, the other officers were inclined to regard the matter as serious. Accordingly, Spencer was put in irons and his effects were searched, with the result that a paper with Greek characters was discovered. It happened that there was one person on board besides Spencer who understood the Greek alphabet — Midshipman Rogers. He interpreted the words as a list of the crew, marked "certain," or "doubtful," with a few observations as to the policy to be pursued with the rest of the crew.

From the time of Spencer's arrest the conduct of the crew became more and more sullen and insubordinate. That afternoon there was a sudden and mysterious falling of the maintopmast and unnecessary confusion in clearing it away. The men gathered in whispering groups, and Spencer was observed making signals to them from the quarter-deck where he sat in irons.

From the evidence of the purser's steward, a boatswain's mate named Cromwell, and a seaman named Small also were arrested as ring-leaders and put in irons. As it was evident from the temper of the crew that the situation was extremely grave, Commander MacKenzie convened all his officers in a court of inquiry, while he, with a midshipman, took charge of the vessel. After deliberating about a day and a half, the officers returned a report that the prisoners were guilty of a "determined intention to commit a mutiny on board this vessel of a most atrocious nature," and in view of the "uncertainty as to what extent they are leagued with others still at large, the impossibility of guarding against the contingencies which a day or an hour may bring forth, we are convinced that it would be impossible to carry them to the United States, and that the safety of the public property, the lives of ourselves, and of those committed to our p216charge, require that . . . they should be put to death."4

Commander MacKenzie concurred in this opinion, and on December 1, he caused the three conspirators to be hanged from the yard‑arm. Upon receiving sentence, Spencer and Small admitted their guilt; Cromwell protested his innocence to the end. The execution had a salutary effect on the crew, who immediately returned to their duties with an alacrity that was in striking contrast with their previous conduct.

On the arrival of the Somers at New York, the report of this execution aroused the greatest excitement, particularly as Spencer was the son of the Secretary of War. MacKenzie immediately called for a court of inquiry; but before its findings were reported, he was hurried to a court-martial. Though both courts rendered an honorable acquittal, for a long time thereafter the father of Spencer made unsuccessful efforts to have MacKenzie indicted in the civil courts for murder. The newspapers naturally made a great deal of the matter, to the disparagement of the navy as well as of MacKenzie, and even so distinguished a writer as Fenimore Cooper published a pamphlet reviewing the evidence of the court-martial with a severe criticism of Commander MacKenzie's conduct. Indeed, the feeling was so strong that it became a point of etiquette among naval officers never to discuss the mutiny on the Somers.

Theoretically, the death sentence, then as now, could not be inflicted without the approval of the President. But a commander's first duty is to save his ship, and the lives of the officers and men under him. To appreciate the circumstances, one must realize that the Somers p217was about the size of a pleasure yacht of to‑day. There were only small scuttles leading from the officers' quarters to the deck, and it would have been a simple matter for the mutineers to seize the deck and kill the officers one by one as they came up. In fact, if there had been a leader ready, after the three were put in irons, a single concerted rush by the crew would have overpowered the officers instantly. Further, on account of the cramped quarters, the prisoners had to be kept in irons on the quarter-deck where they were in sight of the crew and offering a constant temptation to rescue, if the men were so disposed. As the Somers was at this time more than 500 miles from St. Thomas, there was no knowing when she would be able to reach New York; and the mutiny might have broken out at any moment. Finally the dying confession of Spencer showed that a plot for a mutiny of the most diabolical type was actually afoot, so that the apprehensions of Commander MacKenzie and his officers were not due to sudden panic. At the time this affair occurred, Commander MacKenzie had as fine a professional reputation as any other officer in the service, and though he had a difficult decision to make, it is safe to concur with the opinion of his brother officers that he followed the only proper course.

This incident had a wider significance than was realized at the time. It suddenly focused the attention of the naval officers and the public upon the evils of a practice that had become prevalent, that of throwing upon the navy such young scapegraces as proved on shore hard to keep out of jail. Philip Spencer was probably the worst example of this type, and his case, like most of the others, was aggravated by the fact that he was backed by strong political influence. He came to the receiving ship North Carolina with a bad college record, and made mischief at once. When the first lieutenant, Craney, p218tried to have him punished, the father set in motion all his political influence to persecute the unfortunate officer, who finally escaped only by resigning his commission. After Spencer had made a brief cruise on the Brazilian station in the John Adams, he was forced to resign on account of his "disgraceful and scandalous conduct"; but, apparently he was reappointed to the Somers, through his father's influence. In fact, Spencer admitted to Commander MacKenzie just before the execution that he had cherished the plan of mutiny and piracy ever since he entered the navy.

The Founding of the Naval Academy

Hitherto the idea of a naval school corresponding to the Military Academy had often been urged, but without success. Congress did not wish to spend any more money on the navy, and the officers, especially the older men, laughed at the idea of "teaching sailors on shore." The Spencer incident, however, showed clearly enough the demoralizing influence of taking undisciplined young rascals into the service without any training or qualifications whatever. Furthermore, the use of steam for men-of‑war had by this time passed the experimental stage and become recognized as necessary. It began to be evident that steam engineering could not be picked up, like seamanship, simply by going to sea. Accordingly, when the historian, George Bancroft, accepted the post of Secretary of the Navy, in March, 1845, he did so with the determination of founding a Naval Academy. Knowing the obstacles he had to overcome, he went about the work with consummate tact. He managed it so that the suggestion for a school appeared to come directly from the officers themselves. He first asked an examining board, consisting of older officers, to make a report on the best p219location for the school, and by submitting the same question to another board, composed of the younger element, won their approval as well. The recommendation of the first board that Fort Severn, Annapolis, was a suitable place was formally seconded by the second board, and thus the entire navy was committed to the idea.

Bancroft then overcame the unwillingness of Congress to make an appropriation; first, by getting a transfer to Fort Severn from the War to the Navy Department; and secondly, by putting all but a selected few of the navy "schoolmasters" on the waiting list, using the money appropriated to their salaries for the necessary expenses of the new academy.

By these means, he managed in a few months from the time he accepted his post, to have the Naval Academy in actual operation. From the point of view of its effect on the personnel of the navy, the founding of this school may be regarded as the most important event between the War of 1812 and the Civil War.
(facing p218) 
[image ALT: A near-full-length photograph of an old man, looking sad and careworn, standing by a desk; his left hand rests lightly on a pile of books. He is the 19c American scholar and historian, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft.]

George Bancroft

The Naval Academy was formally opened October 10, 1845, with fifty midshipmen and seven instructors. Commander Franklin Buchanan, U. S. Navy, was the first superintendent. For fifteen years the institution struggled along, handicapped by inadequate equipment and insufficient funds. In the Civil War period it first justified its existence. Practically all midshipman, with the exception of the fourth class, were at once transferred to the fleet, where the need of officers was acute. The notable work of these young officers in a time of national emergency awakened new interest in the Naval Academy, and at the end of the war it was Vice-Admiral Porter, next to the ranking officer in the navy, who was detailed as its superintendent. The Spanish-American War was the first to be conducted by its graduates, and firmly established the Academy as a national institution.


The Authors' Notes:

1 A new frigate named after the one destroyed by the Constitution.

[decorative delimiter]

2 They pretended to believe that Platt was not an American officer because he had come ashore in civilian clothes, and when he showed his commission they declared that it was a forgery.

[decorative delimiter]

3 Spears, The American Slave Trade, p145.

[decorative delimiter]

4 Proceedings of the Naval Court-Martial in the Case of Alexander Slidell MacKenzie, p35.


Thayer's Notes:

a See my note in chapter 4.

[decorative delimiter]

b p74.


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Page updated: 18 Mar 13