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A couple unpublished first hand accounts of the Constitution Java Battle.


uss frolick
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Excepts from the official British court martial (PRO Document: ADMI 5435, page XC 14734) for the loss of HMS Java, 38, to the USS Constitution, 44 . Pretty dry stuff on the whole. The official letter of Lt. Chads (Captain Lambert was killed) is included, which can be found published elsewhere, the decision of the court, and some testimony. Mostly "Do you agree with the contents of Lt. Chads letter", and "Did the men behave bravely", etc.. No bombshells here. 

 

The court seemed much interested in whether many of the Java's casualties, upwards of 120 men, were caused by American small arms fire.

 

The court martial was held on board HMS Gladiator in Portsmouth Harbor, April 23, 1813.

 

"Lieutenant James Saunders of the Royal Navy was called and sworn:

 

Q: Did you suffer much on the forecastle from the enemy's musquetry?

A:  Very much indeed.

 

Q: Were you stationed there?

A: Yes.

 

Q: Did you think the Java had a fair chance of succeeding before the end of the bowsprit was shot away?

A: Yes.

 

Q: In which period of the action did you suffer most?

A: When the bowsprit went.

 

Q: Did the American appear to you to avoid close action at the first part of it?

A: Yes.

 

Q: Did the American appear to keep up her fire early in the action, as she did after the bowsprit was carried away?

A: She slackened her fore after the first broadside of the Java and appeared to be in confusion.

 

Q: Did you understand that the American lost her wheel?

A: I afterwards found that she had lost her wheel by the first broadside from the Java and that four men were killed.

 

 

Mr. James Humble, late Boatswain of the Java was called and sworn.

 

Q: How long had the action lasted before you were wounded?

A: Better than an hour, I believe.

 

Q: Was the Java much disabled before you were wounded?

A: Yes, aloft. The fore top, two planks were shot out of it and lodged into the bunt of the fore sail.

 

Q: Did you suffer much from the musquetry on the forecastle?

A: Yes, and likewise from round and grape.

 

Q: Did you think you had as good [a chance] in the action as the American before you were wounded?

A: They seemed to be very sick upon it.

 

Q: Did you come up again after going below?

A: Yes, I was down about an hour and when I got my arm put a little to rights by a tourniquet, being put on it, nothing else. My hand was carried away and my arm wounded about the elbow. I put my arm into the bosom of my shirt and went up again, when I saw the enemy ahead of us repairing his damage. I had my orders from Lt Chads before the action begun, to cheer up the boarders with my pipe, that they might make a clean spring in boarding.

 

Q: Did the Java receive much damage from the enemy before the Java returned any fire at all?

A: Yes, we received besides what I have stated, much damage in the rigging.

 

Q: Did you think that the Java had a fair chance of succeeding before you were wounded and went below.

A: It appeared to me she would. The second broadside his wheel was carried away, and he got a good touching up about the quarterdeck and forecastle, and he downed fore and main tacks to go a head of us, and when our foremast went, he up courses again, and continued the action. Then I got wounded.

 

John MacDonald, Boatswain's Mate, belonging to the Java, was called in and sworn:

 

Q: Where were you quartered in the action?

A: At the fifth gun on the quarterdeck.

 

Q: Did you think that before the Java was disabled that you had a good chance of beating the enemy's ship?

A: Yes, I think we had as good as they had.

 

Q:  Did the American appear to you to avoid a close action, or not in the early part of the action?

A: They kept at long balls, they kept edging away until the Java was disabled.

 

 

Q:  Did you hear Captain Lambert's order the Java to be laid on board the American?

A:  Yes.

 

Q:  What distance was you from the enemy's stern?

A:  Not quite a cable's length upon our lee beam, the helm was put a weather.

 

Q:  Do you remember the [Java's] bow sprit touching the mizen rigging [of the Constitution].

A:  Yes, it took the mizen rigging which appeared to me to prevent our boarding that the time.

 

 

Q: Were the men all ready?

A:  Yes, they had been called and were all ready for jumping on board, on the forecastle, marines and all.

 

Q:  Did you see any of the enemy's men ready to receive the boarders?

A:  No. I did not see any of them at the time.

 

Q: Did you hang some time by the mizen rigging?

A:  Not long.

 

 

Q: Did they get their chasers out then and rake you?

A: Yes.

 

Q: When you were about to lay the enemy on board, from your seeing no men on her decks, and from the state of your own ship, did you think that the action would have terminated in your favor had not the foremast been carried away?

A: Yes, I think it would.

 

Q: Were you ever in action before?

A:  Yes.

 

Christopher Speedy, Captain of the forecastle was called in and sworn:

 

 

Q: Were you on the forecastle during the whole of the action?

A:Yes, from the beginning to the last, quartered at the foremost carronade.

 

Q:  Before the Java was disabled by losing the end of her bowsprit and foremast, did you think you had a as good of the action as the American?

A:  Yes, I thought we were going on very well. About the middle of the action I thought that they had had enough of it, and was making off from us. I saw her stern towards us, and came round on the other tack.

 

 

Q: Did they annoy you much on the forecastle by musquetry? 

A:  More by round and grape [and] double headed. I picked up  five bar shot which fell out of the foremast by rolling. I put them in our guns and fired them back again.

 

Q: Did the American appear to avoid close action?

A: He did always avoid close action. He kept away when ever the smoke cleared away, we always found him yawing away from us.

 

 

Q: Do you remember when the Java endeavored to board her.

A:  Yes. It was just as the foremast fell.

 

Q: Were you all ready for boarding them?

A:  They were called on the forecastle and gangways, and were all ready, boarders and marines.

 

Q: Did you see many of the enemy ready to oppose the boarders?

A: Not many on deck. I saw some men there,but there were a great many in the tops.

 

 

Q: From the few men you saw on the deck of the enemy's ship,, had captain Lambert's intention succeeded in laying on board, have you reason to believe it would have been successful?

A: Yes, I have.

 

Q: Was you ever in action before?

A:  Yes I have.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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"Lieutenant Robert Mercer of the Royal marines was called in and sworn.

 

 

Q: Had you any of your men at small arms?

A: I believe 34, upwards of 20 on the quarterdeck and 10 on the forecastle.

 

Q:  Did the enemy make use of their small arms much?

A:   Yes, from the decks and from the tops.

 

Q:  Were you much annoyed with the small arms?

A:  The first broadside I believe, there were no small arms, there might be on the 2nd.

 

 

Q: Were your decks exposed to their tops?

A: Yes very much. They could see us to take aim.

 

Q:  Do you remember when the Java attempted to lay the enemy on board?

A:  Yes. Captain Lambert spoke to me about it. He said it was his intention to board and desired me to prepare the marines on that occassion, which was done.

 

Q: Do you know from what circumstances it was prevented?

A:  I understood it was by the loss of the foremast at the time.

 

 

Q: How near did you get to the enemy in the attempt?

A:  Very close, within pistol shot. I only saw two men on board the American at that time. One was on the after part of the quarterdeck, and one in the main top.

 

Q: Were the marines keeping up their fire then?

A: Yes they were and the boarders were all ready. I think the Americans were all waiting under the barracading to receive us.

 

Q:  Did the Americans appear to avoid close action?

A:  Yes, they evidently did. They continually kept away.

 

 

Q: What sort of men were the marines?

A:  Eighteen of them were very young recruits, the rest had been to sea before.

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"Captain John Marshall of the Royal Navy was called and sworn.

 

[Note: Marshall was a passenger on board the Java, on his way to India, alongside the new Governor, General Hillsop and about 100 other passengers. Java had about 400 men and boys aboard! In Patrick O'Brian's book "The Fortune of War", Captain Jack Aubrey was also a passenger on board the Java.]

 

 

Q: Did you hear the orders given by Captain Lambert to board?

A: No. I did not. But I knew it to be his intentions.

 

Q:  Did it appear to you that the enemy frigate intended to avoid close action by edging away

A: Most assuredly by her continued wearing to avoid our fire.

 

Q: Did it appear to you that the Java had a fair prospect of a successful termination of the action previous to the loss of her foremast?

A:  I conceived the enemy's ship to be superior from the weight of her metal and the number of men but but conceived we possessed equal chance from the accidents incident to the action.

 

 

Q: Do you remember the attempt to lay the enemy on board?

A:  I remember the attempt being made to lay her on board for that purpose, when our foremast going over the side prevented our intention of boarding her, instantly our bowsprit touched their rigging, our fore mast when over the side, and the men operating the after sails bought our ship in line with the enemy and we fell astern of her, our bowsprit passed over her tafferail, as we fell to leeward.

 

Q: Do you know when you experienced the greatest loss?

A:  I think about the time Captain Lambert fell, she was raking us for about an hour, she lying under our stern and starboard quarter.

 

 

Q: Was there a pretty good breeze during the action?

A:  Yes, but it fell  at the latter part of the action, as she rolled very much in the sea, and the American kept steady by her sails. In one or two instances, the muzzles of our main deck guns nearly touched the water. The American ship's guns were much higher than the Java's.

 

Lieutenant Chads asked:

 

Q: Did you not know it was our intention to have engaged her again had she come upon our broadside?

A:   Yes it was, to the best of my belief, kept the colours flying in the hope that the enemy would come a long side. They were not lowered till her intention was evident by placing himself ahead in a raking position and as the commander [i.e., Captain Bainbridge] informed me [later], he had already giving the orders to fire when our colours were lowered.

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Very educational reading. Those captains had to be some of the smartest and bravest men to sail when you think about having to keep their heads while canon shot was flying at them and parts of their ships were raining down on them. Knowing how to keep your ship fighting while it was falling apart around you was no small task. On top of that having to stand tall and strong for your crew's morale and as honor demanded takes a special kind of person.

 

I am currently reading Patrick O'Brien's books. I will be thinking of this now when I reach that book and the Java.

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We should also remember that Java was in position to stern rake Constitution TWICE during that fight.  The American 44s were generally handled very well during their engagements, but the reality was that they were not nearly as nimble as their smaller opponents.  The Java, in particular, was very well handled (helped in part by extra hands on board for transit to a far off station) and leveraged her maneuverability to give the Constitution everything she could handle.  The loss of Java's headgear was clearly the turning point of the battle and the Constitution took every advantage.  Likely that Old Ironsides would've won under any circumstance, but it certainly shortened the battle with less lives lost.

 

Evan

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I think as far as Constitution keeping away for quite some time before engaging... Bainbridge claimed that he wanted to draw his opponent farther off shore before turning on her.  There seemed to be some indication, however, that Bainbridge mistakenly thought Java was a heavier ship at first - perhaps a small ship of the line...

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Those were the days of, 'more blood, the greater the glory', he showed much better judgment than that. He used enough judgement to win without heavy loss to men and great damage to his command. That matters little to those who were not there,  just like it is today with the arm chair warriors requiring the need for a reason for not wanting a bloody close engagement. Regardless of motive, he displayed the characteristics of a commander I would sail with. Willing to go into harms way, but do it wisely. Having enjoyed some exciting times aboard ships might cloud my view. :pirate41:

jud

Edited by jud
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In comparison to the testimony given by Captain Marshal, Its interesting that the testimony from the sailors sound so upbeat and that they were giving the enemy a good licking, like they are going to give a negative view of the fight to a bunch of admirals and senior captains. :D

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I think to that part of the reason that the testimonies given sound so up beat is partly due to the honor of the sailors to tell a truthful account and also of the respect for good seamanship. They felt confident that early on they had if not a clear advantage then at least an equal opportunity to prevail in this fight. Disabling the Constitutions navigation was a confidence builder for them and they had that momentum to carry them forward and ready to board till they became out maneuvered and then lost their forward rigging. The tide had turned and they lost. I think that although they were surely unhappy about their loss, they still respected the enemy enough to give them the respect of an accurate report. Also, what advantage would there be to lying if they ever wanted to improve? The downfall of any military is to ignore the truth behind a loss or the abilities of a superior enemy. If self image become more important than the truth then the war has already been lost. During that time the British Navy was no fool. They would not have wanted a false report to make them look good and ignore the facts. 

 

That being said, they were not just going to tuck tail and be shamed. They fought with honor and bravery and they were going to show and tell that to the superior officers questioning them. A defeat was bad but an honorable defeat could be stomached and paid. To admit cowardice would be the end of the officers on that ship and likely any pay the sailors had coming to them. Regardless of the rules of combat, respect for an enemy and personal honor that the officers were required to live by no sailor in his right mind would say anything but how great their crew was and how they did everything exactly as it should have been. They wanted their money and a place on another ship.    

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Jud

 

Careful about signing on to sail into battle with Commodore Bainbridge... Put delicately, hè was not Well liked by his crew. In fact, there was à naar mutiny when Isaac Hull resigned And Bainbridge assumed command of Constitution. Bainbridge didnt hide his disdain of common sailors And treated them with almost no respect. Hè cut à deal with THE crew - if they would give HIM à chance, hè would ease Up on harsh discipline. it worked out in THE end!

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These are fascinating reports, adding some great detail to a well-known action! And seconded about Bainbridge, while he was known to possess navigational and tactical skill (despite his loss of the USS Philadelphia, probably the biggest navigational and tactical blunder for the US navy of the generation) he was known to be utterly ruthless towards his crews. In one account I've read, a newly recruited common sailor (perhaps a landsman, or a former merchant sailor who had served on lax vessels) addressed Bainbridge directly, instead of waiting to be spoken to. Rather than giving a verbal rebuke, Bainbridge drew his sword and slashed the man across the face, while calling him subhuman scum or some equivalent term

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When, in 1812, the crew of the Constitution learned that Captain Hull was leaving the ship, and Captain Bainbridge was replacing him, the crew nearly rioted and requested to be released from their service on the ship. Cooler heads prevailed, and the crew grudgingly stood down and remained on board.

 

Bainbridge was also the first US captain to haul down his ship's colors, while in command of the USS Retaliation in 1798, to a pair of french frigates that he mistook for british. Strike One.

 

During the Barbary Wars, he commanded the USS George Washington, and mistakenly anchored his ship under the guns of the great fort of Algiers. The Dey of Algiers demanded that Bainbridge use his ship to ferry the Algerian ambassador and tributary gifts to Constantinople and that he fly the Algerian flag during the journey, or her would sink his ship.  This was an insult of the first order, but Bainbridge agreed, and sailed his ship, as told, under foreign colors. Bainbridge got in a lot of trouble for this, and he should have lost his job for bowing to this blatant national insult. Strike Two.

 

Then there was the Philadelphia blunder. Strike Three.

 

Bainbridge was considered to be a Jonah, which was why Connie's crew nearly mutinied. Bainbridge was the most  hated captain in the fleet. After the War of 1812, Bainbridge helped fan the flames of an old feud between two brother officers, that ended in a duel that killed Bainbridge's old nemesis, Stephen Decatur. Bainbridge hated Decatur because the latter had gotten his fleet to sea first in 1815 and had defeated the Algerian Navy before Bainbridge could get his own fleet to sea and join him. Decatur had promised to wait until all the combined ships of both fleets could sail together and share the glory.  

 

It was Bainbridge's meddling that ruined the USS Independence, 74, altering her design so badly, against the protests of the builder, Samuel Hardt of Boston, that the ship couldn't open her lower deck ports in anything but calm weather. She was the only US 74-gun ship that had to be razeed down into a frigate. The navy was unable to make the USS Independence seaworthy because her lower deck port cills were so low, which was the real reason for Bainbridge's delay, and they eventually had to calk all the lower deck ports closed to be able to safely cross the Atlantic. Sister-ships USS Washington and USS Franklin, unaltered by Bainbridge, did not share this problem. Strike Four.

 

After Bainbridge's death, his daughters burned most of his private papers, because they knew that if the public knew all the shenanigans that her father had been up to, particularly those involving the Decatur-Barron duel, history would not have looked kindly upon him. Some historian go so far as claiming that Bainbridge murdered Decatur, because his manipulations of Barron was so masterful and complete. Bainbridge was loathed by his contemporaries. 

 

Today, Bainbridge is remembered solely as the great hero who took the Java.

Edited by uss frolick
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When, in 1812, the crew of the Constitution learned that Captain Hull was leaving the ship, and Captain Bainbridge was replacing him, the crew nearly rioted and requested to be released from their service on the ship. Cooler heads prevailed, and the crew grudgingly stood down and remained on board.

 

Bainbridge was also the first US captain to haul down his ship's colors, while in command of the USS Retaliation in 1798, to a pair of french frigates that he mistook for british. Strike One.

 

During the Barbary Wars, he commanded the USS George Washington, and mistakenly anchored his ship under the guns of the great fort of Algiers. The Dey of Algiers demanded that Bainbridge use his ship to ferry the Algerian ambassador and tributary gifts to Constantinople and that he fly the Algerian flag during the journey, or her would sink his ship.  This was an insult of the first order, but Bainbridge agreed, and sailed his ship, as told, under foreign colors. Bainbridge got in a lot of trouble for this, and he should have lost his job for bowing to this blatant national insult. Strike Two.

 

Then there was the Philadelphia blunder. Strike Three.

 

Bainbridge was considered to be a Jonah, which was why Connie's crew nearly mutinied. Bainbridge was the most  hated captain in the fleet. After the War of 1812, Bainbridge helped fan the flames of an old feud between two brother officers, that ended in a duel that killed Bainbridge's old nemesis, Stephen Decatur. Bainbridge hated Decatur because the latter had gotten his fleet to sea first in 1815 and had defeated the Algerian Navy before Bainbridge could get his own fleet to sea and join him. Decatur had promised to wait until all the combined ships of both fleets could sail together and share the glory.  

 

It was Bainbridge's meddling that ruined the USS Independence, 74, altering her design so badly, against the protests of the builder, Samuel Hardt of Boston, that the ship couldn't open her lower deck ports in anything but calm weather. She was the only US 74-gun ship that had to be razeed down into a frigate. The navy was unable to make the USS Independence seaworthy because her lower deck port cills were so low, which was the real reason for Bainbridge's delay, and they eventually had to calk all the lower deck ports closed to be able to safely cross the Atlantic. Sister-ships USS Washington and USS Franklin, unaltered by Bainbridge, did not share this problem. Strike Four.

 

After Bainbridge's death, his daughters burned most of his private papers, because they knew that if the public knew all the shenanigans that her father had been up to, particularly those involving the Decatur-Barron duel, history would not have looked kindly upon him. Some historian go so far as claiming that Bainbridge murdered Decatur, because his manipulations of Barron was so masterful and complete. Bainbridge was loathed by his contemporaries. 

 

Today, Bainbridge is remembered solely as the great hero who took the Java.

 

All that and you didn't include Bainbridge's un-razeeing of the John Adams... ;)

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Here's an interesting account in the Newburyport (Massachusetts) Herald and Country Gazette from early 1813, reprinted from a Boston paper Of February 17, 1813.

 

"NAVAL VICTORY.

 

On Monday evening, arrived in the outer harbor, the US Frigate Constitution, Comm. Bainbridge. Mr. Ludlow, Purser, came to town, and was the bearer of the following information of another brilliant naval victory.

 

On the 29th December, lat. 33.6 S, Lon 38 W about 10 leagues from the coast of Brazils, the Constitution fell in with and captured his Britannic Majesty's frigate Java, of 49 guns, and manned by upwards of 400 men. The action continued an hour and 55 minutes, in which time the Java was made a complete wreck, having her bowsprit and every mast and spar shot from her.

 

The Constitution had 9 men killed and 25 wounded. The Java had 60 killed and 101 wounded, certainly among the latter was mortally wounded Capt. Lambert, her commander, a very distinguished officer.

 

The Java was rated 38 guns, but mounted 49. She was just out of dock and fitted in a most complete manner, to carry out Lt. General Hilsop, governor of Bombay and his staff, with Captain Marshall, a captain in the british navy, and a number of naval officers, going to join the british ships of war in the East Indies. She also had supernumeraries of the British Government for St. Helena, the Cape of Good Hope, and to every british establishment in the East Indies, and the China Sea; had copper on board for a 74 gun ship, and two sloops of war building at Bombay; and it is assumed much other valuables; all of which were blown up in her on the 31st December, when she was set on fire. The Constitution was considerably cut in spars, rigging and sails, but not too much injured, but what she could have commenced another action immediately after after the capture of the Java, which the latter vessel was a complete and unmanageable wreck.

 

All officers and seamen, taken in the Java, were paroled by Commodore Bainbridge, and landed on the 3rd of January, at St. Salvador.

 

... By a letter written by one of the officers of the Java, while a prisoner on board the Constitution, it is evident that the  must have been considerably greater, some of whom must have died of their wounds previously to removal. The letter states 60 killed and 120 wounded."

 

NOTE: Such a letter does exist, and I saw it in the National Archives microfilm rolls  years ago. It was included in commodore B.'s official dispatches to the Secretary of the navy, for anyone wishing to look for it, and I remember it gave those exact numbers. This is important, because the official British death toll is only 24 killed, but the wounded number is about the same. Likewise, the British claim that the Java mounted only 16 carronades, not 18.

 

The 74 building at Bombay was the Cornwallis. When she sailed for Britain in 1815, and chased the Hornet, she mounted only 60 guns, because her carronades, shipped from England, had all been lost at sea. Were they also in the hold of the Java? Were a pair of those temporarily mounted on the Java?

 

The article continues:

 

"The Java touched at St Jago, Cape de Verds, and learned that the Essex had been there, and supposing the Constitution had been that frigate with carronades only kept at long shot which prolonged the action ... The Constitution had received only three shots in her hull ..."

 

Note: The USS Essex mounted forty 32-pounder carronades and six long twelve pounders. Really? The Java hit the Connie's hull only three times in two hours? But one of those three, at least, took out the wheel.

 

" ... The force of the Java (formerly the French Frigate La Renomme, which the British called a 44 capturing her) I now state with the best authority 28 18-pounders on the main deck - 14 32-pounders on the quarterdeck - 4 32-pounders and two long 12-pounders on the forecastle, and a lone shifting gun, a 24 pounder."

 

This statement of armament was undoubtably also given by Constitution's purser, Charles Ludlow. The shifting gun might have been a brass 5 1/4 " howitzer in lieu of the standard 18-pounder boat carronade. HMS Amphion was fitted with one in 1811. That would make sense, because the French 18-pound shot would not fit in an English boat carronade - too big. There were no French 18-pound carronades made that that time. It would also have been too confusing to carry two different types of 18-pound shot on board the ship, but French 18-pound shot and grape would fit into an English 24-pounder howitzer, should a boat action be required. But I digress again ...

 

"There are on board the Constitution some of the Java's shot, from which it has been ascertained, there is scarcely three pounds difference between her "eighteens" and the American "twenty-fours", so called; and that the 32-pound shot of the Java is heavier that the 32-pound shot of the Constitution."

 

This last statement is evidence that the Java retained her original French guns. The French pound is heavier than the British, and a French eighteen weighs about 20-21 pounds. The American sand-cast shot was substandard by British specifications, and tended to be underweight by as much as a pound or so in the larger calibers, so Ludlow's last statement could be accurate.

 

Note: Purser Charles Ludlow's brother, Augustus C. Ludlow, USN, was the first lieutenant of the ill-fated Chesapeake, and was mortally wounded in the action with HMS Shannon. His face was nearly cut in two by a cutlass, and he lingered in agony for three days. All towns in New England called Ludlow - like Ludlow, Vermont - were named after him, just like Lawrence, Massachusetts was named after the Chesapeake's late captain, James Lawrence . Ludlow Street in NYC is also named after him.

Edited by uss frolick
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