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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Makers of Naval Tradition

by
Carroll Storrs Alden
and Ralph Earle

published by
Ginn & Company, 1942

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 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

p93 Chapter V

Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794‑1858)

Matthew Calbraith Perry


[image ALT: zzz.]

Perry, whose service in the navy covers forty-nine years, had an excellent record throughout, but won his greatest fame by diplomacy in the Far East, to which he gave between two and three years near the end of his life. It is to what the navy has done in diplomacy that the thought of this chapter, as well as of Chapter XV, will be directed.

No history of American diplomacy, if it begins with the earliest years, should omit the name of John Paul Jones. He won warm friends among the French and the Dutch by his convincing words and charming manners, as well as by his victories, thus rendering a service to be linked with that of Franklin and of Adams. At the close of the war he was appointed agent to secure the settlement of claims based on the sale of American prizes sent in to European ports.

When trouble with the Barbary states followed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, American naval officers were called upon not only to do the fighting but to lay the foundations upon which peaceful relations might be established. Preble, Decatur, Rodgers, and Bainbridge should be recognized for their services in both fields. The last two, with others, were further responsible for the treaty with Turkey, then a power deserving important consideration.

The most brilliant work of the naval diplomats, however, was in the Orient. Kearny in China, Perry in p94Japan, and Shufeldt in Korea not only prepared the way for American commercial interests in a new field but won world-wide prestige for the United States.

Between 1830 and 1840 two American naval vessels each year had visited certain points in the East, but neither officers nor ships had received any recognition from the Chinese government. A few of our merchant vessels, however, were carrying on trade, chiefly in smuggling opium, a traffic which they found highly profitable, as did the British. At the same time the possibilities of legitimate commerce were recognized by those best informed. Thus, when in 1842 Commodore Lawrence Kearny with the Constellation and the Boston arrived at Macao and heard of England's success in the so‑called "opium war," he saw that the time was ripe for action. He dispatched the Boston home with a copy of the favorable treaty which England had obtained, and sent copies also by two other channels.

However, instead of waiting for instructions from Washington he boldly addressed a communication to Viceroy Ke, minor guardian of the heir apparent, president of the board of war, and governor of two provinces. In this, using the courteous tone of the East, he began, "The address of Commodore Kearny, commander in chief of a squadron of United States ships." The squadron now consisted of just one vessel, the Constellation, built half a century before. After stating the friendly attitude of his country, he continued:

The undersigned is desirous that the attention of the Imperial government might be called with respect to the commercial interest of the United States, and he hopes that importance of their trade will receive consideration, and their citizens, in that matter, be placed upon the same footing as the merchants of the nation most favored.

p95 It happened that Kearny had already come to the attention of the viceroy because of the firm and just stand he had taken with regard to some outrages visited the previous year upon Americans near Canton; and when he fearlessly sailed from Macao to Canton for an answer to his message, he received one that was most favorable. In the conclusion, almost hidden by the stately verbiage characteristic of the Orient, was the gratifying assurance:

Decidedly it shall not be permitted that the American merchants shall come to have merely a dry stick [in other words, their interests shall be attended to] . . . that children and foreigners with faith and justice may be mutually united, and forever enjoy mutual tranquillity. . . .

Kearny further made a favorable impression by volunteering the assurance that the United States would not protect her merchants engaged in smuggling opium. There is no doubt that he was largely responsible for the proclamation issued a few months later giving to the United States and other nations the same commercial privileges that were granted to Great Britain by the Treaty of Nanking. China had opened her port and taken her place among the nations.

Matthew Calbraith Perry had made a name for himself in the Service long before going to Japan. His father was a sea captain, who, though only fourteen at the beginning of the Revolution, had fought all through it, being twice captured. Five of the captain's sons became American naval officers, the two most famous being Oliver Hazard Perry, the victor on Lake Erie, and Matthew Calbraith Perry, nine years his junior, the subject of this sketch.

p96 As we glance over the career of Matthew Calbraith Perry we note that as a young officer, engaged in recruiting duty at Boston, he led in organizing the first naval-apprentice system of the United States. At the New York Navy Yard he superintended the building of the Fulton (the second ship of this name), a paddle-wheel steamer, the first steam vessel with hull of ordinary type built for the navy. On completion of this ship he was detailed to command her and had as his problem the organizing and training of the personnel, a problem which, because of the new type, necessitated pioneer work. Further, he had the planning of the first steam frigates of the navy, the Missouri and the Mississippi. Because of the excellence of this service he was dubbed the "Father of the Steam Navy." In the Mexican War, at the critical point of operations before Vera Cruz, he was ordered to relieve Commodore Conner. There he had command of the largest force ever assembled up to that time under the American flag, and the spirited coöperation of army and navy soon resulted in the capture of Vera Cruz, a preliminary to the march upon Mexico City. Thus there were good reasons for the Department's selecting him in 1852 to command the proposed expedition to Japan.

Many events prompted this enterprise. Negotiations, as described, had resulted in a treaty with China, and it was characteristic of young America, having succeeded, to go a step farther (or nearer) and attempt what Great Britain, France, Portugal, and Russia had failed to accomplish. If American merchantmen in stress of weather or American steamships in need of coal founded themselves in difficulty off Japanese ports, it was desirable that crews should not court death by entering. The discovery of gold in California had called large p97numbers of our people to the Western coast, and commerce with the Far East had at once assumed greater importance. Furthermore, there had been influences at work in Japan: her people, or at least the leaders, had heard of the British victory in China and they had been impressed by the American success in Mexico; they were beginning to have an interest in Western ideas.

Already our government had taken cautious steps toward a treaty with Japan, the most important being in 1846, when Commodore Biddle with the Columbus and the Vincennes entered the Bay of Yedo. Admiral Luce, then a midshipman, was a member of this expedition; and the story will be found in the chapter on that officer. To Fillmore's proposal of friendly relations the Japanese had replied, "Go away and do not come back any more."

The Navy Department had promised Perry a large squadron for his expedition. A few of the ships were already in the East. While waiting for the other ships to be put into condition, he used the time to good advantage by procuring charts and books relating to Japan, and also by obtaining specimens of cloth from manufacturers in Massachusetts, and farm implements, arms, and inventions, showing American mechanical genius, from various sources. Further, at New Bedford he talked with owners and masters of whaling vessels, gaining such information as they could give from their cruises in waters adjacent to Japan. These careful preparations he was to make good use of later.

Before his departure the government gave him various official documents, including a letter to the emperor of Japan signed by President Fillmore. The State Department instructed him to attempt first by argument p98and persuasion to secure the object of his mission, but in case these proved ineffective to change his tone and warn Japan that America would chastise offenders and exact a penalty when citizens seeking refuge in Japanese ports because of shipwreck or stress of weather were not treated humanely.

Delays continued, and the large squadron gave no sign of being ready. Finally, in November, 1852, Perry would wait no longer and sailed with but a single ship, the Mississippi. The start was made from Annapolis, and the President and the Secretary of the Navy came down to see him off. Newspapers at home and abroad had apparently no faith in the enterprise and indulged in many a joke. The London Times wondered "whether the emperor of Japan would receive Commodore Perry with most indignation or most contempt." The Baltimore Sun compared the sailing of Perry's squadron to the sailing of "Rufus Porter's aërial ship"a and urged "abandoning this humbug."

Perry on reaching China engaged Dr. S. W. Williams, an American missionary, to accompany him as interpreter. Here he continued his study of Japanese history, manners, and customs. Also he added to his command such ships as were available, and thus had the steam frigates Susquehanna and Mississippi and the sloops of war Saratoga and Plymouth.

On the 8th of July, 1853, the squadron moved slowly up the Bay of Yedo and dropped anchor off Uraga, twenty-seven miles from the capital, Yedo (Tokyo). This being the first appearance of steamers in the Bay of Yedo, great was the astonishment of the natives to see the huge ships approaching directly against the wind. A cordon of small boats soon surrounded the vessels; and curious natives, catching at the chains, p99attempted to clamber on board. This and many other liberties had been allowed in the past by foreigners; but now the Japanese were shown, with a suggestion of force, that they must keep off. Perry had already decided on this policy, and in coming to the exclusive nation had determined to outdo them in exclusiveness. He strictly forbade communication with the natives except from the flagship. When the vice governor of Uraga appeared in a boat and an interpreter declared his rank, he was kept waiting until he had explained why he, and not the governor, had come; and when the gangway was lowered and the dignitary came on board, he was by no means permitted to see the commodore. Perry, because of his rank as the great ambassador of the President, would meet no one less than a "counselor of the Empire" (cabinet minister). However, Lieutenant Contee, acting as Perry's representative, informed the vice governor of the friendly mission on which the Americans had come and of the letter written by the President to the emperor, which Commodore Perry would deliver with appropriate formalities. The vice governor, as related in the official account of the expedition by Dr. Hawks, at once stated that "Nagasaki was the only place, according to the laws of Japan, for negotiating foreign business, and it would be necessary for the squadron to go there." To this "he was told that the commodore had come purposely to Uraga because it was near to Yedo, and that he should not go to Nagasaki; that he expected the letter to be duly and properly received where he then was; that his intentions were perfectly friendly, but that he would allow of no indignity."

Perry had no intention of using force unless he were attacked; yet, that he might be prepared for emergency, p100he had already cleared decks and begun drilling the crews as in time of war. It was a period of uncertainty, and the excitement on shore, as described later by a Japanese, Professor Nitobe, was extreme. This other point of view is shown by his account:

No sooner had "the black ships of the evil mien" made their entry into the bay, than the signal guns were fired, followed by the discharge of rockets; then were seen on the shore companies of soldiers moving from garrison to garrison. The popular commotion in Yedo at the news of "a foreign invasion," was beyond description. The whole city was in an uproar. In all directions were seen mothers flying with children in their arms, and men with mothers on their backs. Rumors of an immediate action, exaggerated each time they were communicated from mouth to mouth, added horror to the horror-stricken. The tramp of war‑horses, the clatter of armed warriors, the noise of carts, the parade of firemen, the incessant tolling of bells, the shrieks of women, the cries of children, dinning all the streets of a city of more than a million souls, made confusion worse confounded.

When at seven o'clock the next morning two large boats came alongside the Susquehanna bringing the governor of Uraga, again the exclusive commodore would not treat with an official beneath his rank, but delegated Captains Buchanan and Adams to confer with him. The new conferee at once urged "Nagasaki"; but, as before, this met with an emphatic refusal. The captains declared that the commodore "would persist in delivering the letter where he was; and, moreover, that if the Japanese government did not see fit to appoint a suitable person to receive the documents in his possession addressed to the emperor, he, the commodore, whose duty it was to deliver them, would go on shore with a sufficient force and deliver them in p101person, be the consequences what they might." The governor then said it would be necessary to send to Yedo for instructions. This, he said, would require four days; he was told that the commodore would wait only three. On leaving, the governor asked what the ships' boats, busily engaged since daylight in surveying the harbor and bay, were doing. When told, he strongly protested, for it was against the Japanese law. The uncompromising reply was "that the American laws command them, and that Americans were as much bound to obey the American as he was to obey the Japanese laws."

Perry was holding to the policy decided upon, believing "that the more exclusive he should make himself and the more unyielding he might be in adhering to his declared intentions, the more respect these people of forms and ceremonies would be disposed to award him." Thus it happened that on the day following the governor's visit, Sunday, when several mandarins came to make an unofficial visit, Perry, who from boyhood had been very strict in Sabbath observance, refused to permit them to come on board.

As can be imagined, the proposal taken to Yedo by the governor of Uraga had the effect of an earthquake; and the Japanese, in spite of their strong feeling against foreigners, were distinctly impressed by Perry's firmness and power. They feared that if they resisted he might land and, by dwelling in the Holy Country, defile it. The ruling dynasty, moreover, was none too strong, and dreaded a clash lest it might be the signal for revolution.

Of the internal conditions Perry had no knowledge, and he was much relieved by the governor's returning on the appointed day with the assurance that the President's letter would be received with fitting ceremonies.

p102 Two days later (14 July, 1853), shortly before eight o'clock, the Susquehanna and the Mississippi steamed down the bay and inshore toward a large and highly decorated reception hall which the Japanese had quickly erected. At a signal from the Susquehanna, three hundred officers, sailors, and marines, filling fifteen launches and cutters, moved toward the shore. A salute of thirteen guns from the Susquehanna echoing and reëchoing among the hills, gave notice when the august ambassador of the President upon whom no Japanese eye had yet gazed was embarking in his barge.

On the arrival of the commodore, his suite of officers formed a double line along the landing place, and as he passed up between, they fell into order behind him. The procession was then formed and took up its march toward the house of reception, the route to which was pointed out by Kayama Yezaiman [the Governor of Uraga] and his interpreter, who preceded the party. The marines led the way, and, the sailors following, the commodore was duly escorted up the beach. The United States flag and the broad pennant were borne by two athletic seamen, who had been selected from the crews of the squadron on account of their stalwart proportions. Two boys, dressed for the ceremony, preceded the commodore, bearing in an envelope of scarlet cloth the boxes which contained his credentials and the President's letter. These documents, of folio size, were beautifully written on vellum, and not folded, but bound in blue silk velvet. Each seal, attached by cord of interwoven gold and silk with pendent gold tassels, was encased in a circular box six inches in diameter and three in depth, wrought of pure gold. Each of the documents, together with its seal, was placed in a box of rosewood about a foot long, with lock, hinges, and mountings all of gold. On either side of the commodore marched a tall, well-formed negro, who, armed to the teeth, acted as his personal guard.

p103 These negroes, the pick of the squadron, were giants in stature and attracted great attention from the Japanese, who had never seen blacks before. This pomp and parade, carefully planned for effect, seems to have been highly successful.

As Perry and his suite entered the reception hall, magnificent in its hangings of violet-colored silk and fine cotton, two princes, who were seated on the left, rose, bowed, and then resumed their seats. They had been appointed by the government to receive the documents, and their dignity was appalling: during the entire interview they sat with statuesque formality, uttering not a word nor making a gesture.

The complete ceremonies occupied not more than a half-hour. For some minutes after the commodore had taken his seat there was absolute silence, broken finally by the Japanese interpreter asking the American interpreter if the letters were ready for delivery and stating that the princes were ready to receive them.

The commodore, upon this being communicated to him, beckoned to the boys who stood in the lower hall, to advance, when they immediately obeyed his summons and came forward, bearing the handsome boxes which contained the President's letter and other documents. The two stalwart negroes followed immediately in rear of the boys, and marching up to the scarlet receptacle prepared by the Japanese for the letters, received the boxes from the hands of the bearers, opened them, took out the letters, and, displaying the writings and seals, laid them upon the lid of the Japanese box — all in perfect silence.

The commodore then directed his interpreter to inform the Japanese that he should leave in two or three days, but would return the following spring for an answer. When they inquired if he should return p104with all four vessels, he gave the assurance, "All of them and probably more, as these are only a portion of the squadron." After a further impressive silence, and a repetition of the formal bowing with which the conference had begun, Perry took his departure.

The Japanese, at the close of the conference, had virtually ordered that the ships should leave the bay at once; but Perry, to show how little he regarded their orders, instead instructed the squadron to get under way and steam ten miles up the bay toward Yedo. Then, not content with this, he took the Mississippi and went ten miles still higher, to within seven miles of the capital. The governor of Uraga soon made another visit to the Susquehanna and twice, Perry observes in his official report, he volunteered a "prediction of the favorable reception of the President's letter. Nothing was said now of sending the answer to Nagasaki, and its seemed the nearer we approach the imperial city the more polite and friendly they became."

While the American ships were wintering in Hongkong, Perry learned that French and Russian admirals at Shanghai were planning a visit to the Bay of Yedo. He resolved not to allow them to snatch away the advantages he had gained; and although navigation in those waters was supposed to be hazardous in winter he sailed for Japan on the 14th of January, 1854. With three steam frigates and four sloops of war he moved up the Bay of Yedo, passing Uraga, and on the 13th of February came to anchor twenty miles from the capital.

Shortly after Perry's first visit the Shogun, or emperor, had died. The Japanese officials had sent the Americans news of this while the squadron was at Hongkong and had requested that they defer their p105return as it might create confusion. Perry suspected the genuineness of the report; at least he could see no reason why he should not be near to comfort his new friends in their bereavement. On arrival he was well received; but the Japanese dignitaries who conferred with his captains — for Perry was still playing his rôle of exclusiveness — at once requested that the ships put back to Uraga, where they said preparations had been made to treat with the Americans and to give an answer to the President's letter. Perry, feeling that it would be dangerous to yield in a single instance, replied through his captains that Uraga was unsafe and inconvenient for the ships, and, further, that it was the custom of civilized nations to treat at the metropolis. When the dignitaries continued to insist on Uraga and the captains to refuse, Perry settled the difficulty in a characteristic way. Without warning he moved the squadron forward until within sight of Yedo. This induced the Japanese promptly to adopt a conciliatory tone; they then proposed for the treaty ground Yokohama, almost opposite where the ships were anchored, and this was at once accepted.

On the 8th of March, the day that had been set for beginning the negotiations, the commodore with five hundred men and three bands of music went ashore to the "Treaty House," erected especially for this occasion. At an early stage in the negotiations, the Japanese expressed a willingness to enter into friendly intercourse with the United States, but seemed determined to grant nothing. Three weeks of conference followed; and as the commodore continued to show the firmness and dignity that had already won prestige for him, and as he kept his men strictly under discipline, the Japanese p106came to regard their persistent visitors with increasing tolerance and interest.

In the middle of the negotiations Perry delivered to the Japanese the presents that the storeship had lately brought from America, designed especially for this people, and he sent ashore officers and workmen to prepare the gifts for exhibition. Among them were agricultural implements, clocks, two telegraph instruments, three Francis lifeboats, and a Lilliputian railway. The last had a locomotive, tender, car, and rails, but was so small that it could scarcely carry a child of six.

The Japanese, however, were not to be cheated out of a ride, and, as they were unable to reduce themselves to the capacity of the inside of a carriage, they betook themselves to the roof. It was a spectacle not a little ludicrous to behold a dignified mandarin whirling around the circular road at the rate of twenty miles an hour, with his loose robes flying in the wind, . . . [clinging] with a desperate hold to the edge of the roof, [and] grinning with intense interest.

In return the Japanese brought generous presents of lacquered work, pongee, umbrellas, dolls, and various other things, together with the substantial remembrances of two hundred sacks of rice and three hundred chickens. Then, after this evidence of friendliness, they entertained their guests with wrestling matches between their champions, enormously fat and muscular. Later the Americans received seventy of the Japanese on board the Powhatan; and the cook fairly outdid himself in setting forth a dinner which, as the Japanese did not pay much attention to order in eating the various dishes of food loading the tables, is described as the most "confused commingling of fish, flesh, and fowl, soups and syrups, fruits and fricassees, roast and boiled, pickles and preserves," all of which p107the Japanese consumed in large quantities, and became fairly "uproarious under the influence of overflowing supplies of champagne, Madeira, and punch, which they seemed greatly to relish."

On Friday, 31 March, 1854, Commodore Perry and four commissioners signed a treaty written in the English, Dutch, and Chinese languages. This guaranteed succor and protection to shipwrecked Americans; permission for a ship in distress or overtaken by storm, to enter any Japanese port; the opening of the ports Shimoda and Hakodate, where Americans could secure water, wood, coal, and provisions, and, with some restrictions, enjoy trade relations.

Larger privileges were later granted by the treaties of 1857 and 1858. England, quick to follow the advantage gained by the United States, six months after Perry's success also secured commercial rights; and Russia and Holland were only a few months later. Thus if Perry's expedition had been planned solely for our own commercial profit, there might have been disappointment; but the prestige gained by the American commodore, who had shown himself such an able diplomat, and the honor that came to our nation in having drawn Japan from her isolation, proved an ample recompense.

The story of Perry and Japan is not complete without its sequel, which relates to the opening of Korea. Though the latter gained less public notice, it was a more difficult project. Like the successes of Kearny and Perry, it was the accomplishment of a naval officer, Robert W. Shufeldt.

Korea, the "hermit nation," had in the modern era been even more determined than her neighbors to keep p108out Occidental influences. Thus, when Commander Shufeldt was sent with the Wachusett in 1867 to investigate the loss of the General Sherman, wrecked on her coast the preceding year, his letter to the king brought no reply, and he was ordered to depart.

Three years later the American minister to China, Mr. F. F. Low, with a naval escort under Rear Admiral John Rodgers, was sent to Korea on a mission closely parallel to that of Perry. With five ships they steamed to the mouth of the Salée River, thirty miles from Seoul. While making a survey of the river their boat was fired upon by a Korean fort; a fight followed in which two Americans were killed and more than forty Koreans killed or wounded. As the American demand for an apology from the Korean government brought no answer, after a sufficient interval Admiral Rodgers sent ashore a retaliatory expedition, captured and destroyed five forts, and inflicted losses of three hundred and fifty in killed and wounded upon the Koreans. Low now resumed his attempt to negotiate a treaty but the local officials refused to transmit his letters to their government. The mission thus came to naught. The Navy Department, on receiving Rodgers's report, approved of what he had done, but cautioned him against undertaking the conquest of Korea.

Nothing further was attempted by our government until 1878, when Shufeldt, then a commodore, was sent to Korea. This time he held to his purpose until he succeeded, but the task required four years of determined effort and skillful diplomacy.

Since the difficulty previously experienced had been the inability to reach the king with communications, Shufeldt went to the Japanese state department and sought to gain their good services in transmitting his p109letters. The Japanese represented that this might involve them in certain complications, and they would do no more than let one of their consuls at a distant seaport take the matter up with the Korean governor of the district. The latter, however, refused to forward the American documents.

At this point the famous Chinese statesman, Li Hung Chang, hearing of Shufeldt, invited him to Tientsin. Li at once offered his good offices in the Korean problem, and further told him of the need he felt of getting the advice of a competent naval officer in organizing the Chinese Navy. Russia was then threatening.

The time for the cruise having expired, Shufeldt had to take his ship home. Soon, however, Washington gave him permission to return on a secret mission; and he went back, supposedly as attaché to the legation. During his absence, however, the political atmosphere had changed; and he found Li Hung Chang lacking enthusiasm and disposed to give little or no help by acting as intermediary with Korea. A treaty between China and Russia had allayed the fear of aggression by the latter country.

There followed many months of patient work and waiting until Shufeldt began to despair of obtaining anything whatever from Li Hung Chang. The next year, however, disclosed to the American minister at Peking that the Chinese emperor was convinced of advantages that would result from Korea's establishing treaty relations with the Western powers and first with America.

The treaty was virtually drafted at Tientsin. A deadlock was threatened in negotiations when Li insisted on inserting a clause affirming the suzerainty of China over Korea and Shufeldt refused. Finally Li waived the point. Early next month the American p110officer in the U. S. S. Swatara, preceded by three ships of the Chinese Navy, went to Korea to draw up the treaty. Strange to relate, the Japanese foreign minister from Seoul also appeared on the scene and seemed extremely desirous of offering his services.

On the 22d of May, 1882, Commodore Shufeldt, accompanied by fourteen officers and the marine guard of the Swatara, proceeded to the tent put up by the Korean authorities, and there, meeting two commissioners representing Korea (the president and a member of the royal cabinet), with Admiral Ting and Captain Clayson of the Imperial Chinese Navy, he and the two commissioners signed and sealed six copies of the treaty — three in English and three in Chinese.

This treaty was much more comprehensive than the initial treaties with either China or Japan. Other nations were watching; and in a few weeks Great Britain and Germany pressed forward and obtained treaties, followed shortly afterwards by infantry, Russia, France, and Austria, all accepting the American draft as their model.

Our former Secretary of State, John W. Foster, in his "American Diplomacy in the Orient," quotes a London journal which, in announcing the signing of the American-Korean treaty, recalled the feat accomplished thirty years before by Perry, who, "overcoming obstacles which had baffled almost every European nation, and without firing a shot or leaving ill‑feeling behind, succeeded in opening Japan to foreign intercourse." The same paper then went on to say, "The conclusion of a treaty between the United States and Korea adds another to the peaceful successes of American diplomacy in the Far East." This, as Secretary Foster observed, was the work of the navy.


Thayer's Note:

a Rufus Porter was an American inventor who in 1849 published a booklet on the design of a dirigible, much on the lines of the zeppelins decades later: see the page at Flying Machines.Org. Although he was widely ridiculed, his idea was fundamentally sound.


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