Category Archives: Western Australia

The story of Australia’s last convicts



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Swan River Colony.
Jane Eliza, Currie Panorama of the Swan River Settlement via Wikimedia Commons

Barry Godfrey, University of Liverpool and Lucy Williams, University of Liverpool

The Hougoumont, the last ship to take convicts from the UK to Australia, docked in Fremantle, Western Australia, on January 9, 1868 – 150 years ago. It brought an end to a process which deposited about 168,000 convicted prisoners in Australia after it began in 1788.

Convicts had ceased to be sent to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) decades earlier, but Western Australia still wanted convict labour to help with building projects. By the time the Hougoumont landed its shipment of 281 convicts, the Swan River penal colony in Western Australia had been reliant on convict labour for 18 years, and received almost 10,000 male prisoners from Britain.

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The convict system may have ended with the arrival of the final convicts on the Hougoumont and the disbandment of Australia’s penal settlements, but the people who were its legacy lived on. Some prisoners achieved a kind of celebrity status. Mary Reibey, who was transported to Sydney, became a successful businesswoman and charitable benefactor, and is commemorated on the Australian $20 note.

In Western Australia some of Britain’s “bad” men made also “good”. Alfred Chopin, transported for receiving stolen goods, became a famed and sought-after photographer. Embezzler John Rowland Jones became a reporter for the Western Australian government, and later editor of the West Australian newspaper. Their stories are extraordinary, but they have been used to present a generally favourable narrative which contrasts their heroism against the long-established stain that supposedly blighted those generations of Australians descended from convicts.

It is easy to find thousands of ex-convicts who left crime behind and forged new, ordinary, lives in Australia. Yet, while some ex-convicts became pillars of their communities, got married, and became much-loved and valued friends and neighbours, others struggled.

Our ongoing research shows that the impact of transportation could last a lifetime for those in Western Australia. Many convicts were left struggling with unemployment, personal relationships, and alcoholism, and drifted through both life and the colony. Many re-offended for decades after they were freed in Australia, but only committed low-level nuisance and public order offences – mainly drunkenness and vagrancy – rather than the more serious crimes for which they were initially transported.

Fremantle Harbour in 1899.
Nixon & Merrilees via Wikipedia

The Western Australian records we’ve been using for our recent research and digitised for the Digital Panopticon project reveal the story of Samuel Speed, the last living Australian convict. He was transported to Western Australia in 1866 and died in 1938, just short of his 100th birthday.

Speed’s story

Samuel Speed.
The Mirror (Perth), 1938.

Speed was born in Birmingham, England in 1841. He had one brother and one sister, but little else about his family or early life is known. He was in his early twenties when he was tried in Oxfordshire in 1863 for setting fire to a haystack. Homeless and begging for food, he had committed arson in order to get arrested and spend some time in a warm cell. He was sentenced to seven years of convict transportation to Australia.

Speed was conditionally released in 1869 and was allowed to live outside of the prison walls and undertake employment, provided he did not commit any further offences. He found work as a general servant in Western Australia and was finally granted his certificate of freedom two years later. He went on to help build bridges across the vast Swan River, and spent the rest of his working life at various companies around the state. He was never re-convicted of any offence and went on to live a perfectly ordinary and law-abiding life, only coming to the attention of the papers a few months before his death.

By that time, old and frail, and dependent on the care of attendants, Speed’s memories of transportation were faded. Among the few recollections of his former life he remembered that:

Among those unfortunates transported … were men of every walk of life; doctors, lawyers, shirt-soiled gentlemen, and social outcasts tipped together in the hothouse of humanity that was the Swan River Colony.

A kind of rehabilitation

Speed lived long enough to see his former penal settlement become part of the federated commonwealth of Australia. He witnessed the death of an old archaic system, and the birth of a new and confident Australian nation.

To the early 20th-century press, his life was a gratifying confirmation that they system had worked. Western Australia had taken corrupt British convicts and turned them into productive members of society. The report of his death in Perth’s Sunday Times confidently asserted that Speed’s conduct was all that a reputable citizen should aspire to.

He was not by any means the only ex-convict who stayed out of trouble, however, as our research is showing, his behaviour was far better than most of his fellow ex-convicts. It was also better than the rumoured conduct of free settlers who flooded into Western Australia after gold was discovered in the 1880s and 1890s.

Our preliminary research is showing that about 80% of men who arrived on the last convict ship (discounting 67 Irish political prisoners) committed either a regulatory infraction such as absconding, possession of contraband or violent conduct, or a criminal offence during their time under sentence. Given the number of convicts who re-roffended both during and after their sentence, it’s better to think of the transportation system as encouraging enough reform for society to progress. The convicts as a cohort may not all have rehabilitated, but few committed serious offences after they were transported.

The ConversationAs for Speed, he died in Perth’s Old Men’s Home in 1938. Seventy years after the last British convict ship arrived in Australia, the convict period had finally ended.

Barry Godfrey, Professor of Social Justice, University of Liverpool and Lucy Williams, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Liverpool, England, U.K., University of Liverpool

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Oral testimony of an Aboriginal massacre now supported by scientific evidence



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A cross was erected during the 1996 remembering ceremony of the Sturt Creek massacre.
Pam Smith, Author provided

Pamela Smith, Flinders University and Keryn Walshe, South Australian Museum

For almost 100 years, the Aboriginal people of the Kutjungka Region in southeast Kimberley, Western Australia, have reported through oral testimony and art how many of their ancestors were killed in a massacre.

Until now, their evidence has been the only record of this event. No written archives, including police records, have been found.

But we are part of a team that has now uncovered physical evidence of human intervention at the massacre site, comprising highly fragmented burnt bone. The results of our study were published in October’s Forensic Science International journal.


Read more: DNA reveals a new history of the First Australians


We believe our results go some way to providing public recognition of this atrocity. It also gives a model that can be used at other similar massacre sites in the search for evidence to verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people.

The Sturt Creek Massacre: the full undated painting by artists Launa Yoomarri and Daisy Kungah under direction of Clancy and Speiler Sturt. The Aboriginal prisoners are chained between two trees. The four figures (two left and two right) hold guns. The footsteps end at the well and goat yard, and both contain fragmented bone. The white line and black stones on either side of the creek, Sturt Creek, represent the ‘milky’ coloured water of Sturt Creek and the black stone along the banks are what Daisy Kungah described as purrkuji, the jupilkarn (cormorants) in the dreamtime.
Kuningarra School, Billiluna Aboriginal Community, Western Australia., Author provided

The massacre at Sturt Creek

Tjurabalan, or Sturt Creek, provides water for life to flourish in this desert margin. The surrounding landscape is harsh, with pale green spinifex set against the deep red of the soil.

This is a terminal river system ending in Paruku, or Lake Gregory. Both the river and lake are places of spiritual significance to the Walmajarri and Jaru people, owners of the Tjurabalan Native Title claim.

Map showing the location of Sturt Creek Station and the study area on Sturt Creek, southeast Kimberley Region, Western Australia.
Robert Keane, Spatial Systems Analyst, Flinders University, Author provided

It was here, during the early years of the 20th century, that an unknown number of Aboriginal people were killed in at least three massacres reported in either oral testimonies or archival documents.

These events include one on Sturt Creek Station, where an adult man and his son escaped – it is their report that is recounted today by the descendants of those killed.

Dr Keryn Walshe (right) talking to members of the descent group at the massacre site.
Pam Smith, Author provided

We were asked by the Kimberley Land Council to search for archival evidence of the massacre on Sturt Creek Station and to record the site. In 2009 a group of descendants took us, both archaeologists, to the massacre site.

Colleagues from CSIRO Land and Water, Flinders University and the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, Adelaide, also collaborated through the Kimberley Frontier Archaeology Project at Flinders University.

The search for evidence

Oral testimonies and paintings record that many Aboriginal people were shot and their bodies burnt. The number killed is not known.

The descendants reported that the massacre took place following the well-documented murder of two white men at Billiluna Station in 1922, and the subsequent police search for their killers.

But the search for written evidence of this massacre in the documents, diaries and newspapers of white people failed to find a reference, apart from a police diary with missing entries for four days.

One of ten scrapes made in the dry stone wall enclosure. Scrapes into the loose top soil revealed burnt bone, all highly fragmented and embedded in burnt soil.
Pam Smith

Two scatterings of burnt bone fragments were identified within a short distance of each other. All had been weathered in the harsh desert conditions for more than 90 years and all bone fragments were small, less than 20mm by 20mm.

Bone fragment No 2 from the Sturt Creek site.
Author provided

Proving that the bones were of human origin, based on the few samples our team was permitted to collect, was challenging. Two bone fragments from a human skull were identified; the challenge then was to identify evidence of an intense fire.

This evidence was provided through X-ray diffraction analyses that determined the temperatures at which the fire burnt and the length of time.

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Maintaining a fire of such high temperatures over many hours using timber as fuel must have involved human intervention and an intention to destroy the bones beyond recognition.

This was not a traditional hearth fire, as later experiments demonstrated, nor were Indigenous artefacts or cultural material found.

An objective of our study was to demonstrate that scientific research at massacre sites can verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people. We believe this was achieved at Sturt Creek.

Recognition of a massacre

Many people, both Aboriginal and white, lost their lives on the Australian frontier, but in most documented massacres it was Aboriginal people who were killed.

Scholars of Australian frontier history have argued the deaths of Aboriginal people should be acknowledged without political prejudice as grave injustices. Others have argued the many reported massacre events in Australia were fabricated.


Read more: Of course Australia was invaded – massacres happened here less than 90 years ago


This debate is now known as the “History Wars”, and are generally views expressed by non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people, particularly the descendants of those killed, still bear the pain of these past conflicts.

Memorial erected at the Sturt Creek massacre site by the descendants in 2011.
John Griffiths, Author provided

They know that grandparents, aunts and uncles were absent when they were children, and deep sorrow took their place. The descendants are also the custodians of the oral testimonies recording these events.

We believe our research confronts a significant cultural boundary that – apologies aside – political leaders have failed to address. We cannot undo the past, but we can acknowledge that these events are part of both Aboriginal and white histories – they are real and Aboriginal people still suffer the pain of the past.

Of all outcomes from this project, an email from a resident of the Balgo community gave the most hope for the future. The correspondent concluded by saying thank you for “contributing to bringing some closure to my friends”.

The ConversationWe ask little more than for archaeologists and scientists working with Aboriginal descent groups to achieve a level of closure, no matter how small, for the descendants of this and similar places of atrocities committed on the Australian frontier.

Pamela Smith, Senior Research Fellow, adjunct, Flinders University and Keryn Walshe, Research Scientist in Archaeology, South Australian Museum

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Picturing the unimaginable: a new look at the wreck of the Batavia



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Paul Uhlmann, Batavia 4th June 1629 (night of my sickness), 2017, oil on canvas (detail, one of three panels).
Courtesy of the artist

Arvi Wattel, University of Western Australia

Before dawn on the morning of June 4 1629, the Batavia, a ship of the Dutch East India Company, struck a reef at the Abrolhos Islands, some 70 kilometres off the Western Australian coast. More than seven months earlier the ship had left the Netherlands to make its way to the city of Batavia (present-day Jakarta), carrying silver, gold and jewels and 341 passengers and crew. During the shipwreck, 40 of them drowned. The others found safety on a nearby island.

Since there was no fresh water on the island they would name Batavia’s Graveyard (now Beacon Island), Commander Pelsaert and about 45 others took a longboat in search of water on the mainland. Unsuccessful in his search, Pelsaert decided to sail on to the city of Batavia to get help. By the time he returned in mid-September, the followers of Jeronimus Cornelisz, the man he had left in charge, had murdered 115 men, women and children.

It was not just the extent of the killings that shocked Pelsaert, but also their sheer cruelty: victims had been repeatedly stabbed, had their throats slit with blunt knifes, or their heads split with an axe. In his account of the events, Pelsaert tried to comprehend what had happened. No Christian man could ever have done this. It had to be the work of the devil.

Ongeluckige Voyagie, Van t Schip Batavia, nae Oost-Indien. State Library of Western Australia.
State Library of Western Australia

Mutiny, shipwreck, treasures, brutal murders and a “happy” ending for the 116 people who survived: it all sounds like the script for a Hollywood movie. No wonder then that Russell Crowe has bought the rights to Hugh Edwards’s novel Island of Angry Ghosts, which recounts the shipwreck and its rediscovery in 1963. The Batavia’s tragic tale has inspired novels, a stage play, songs, an opera, a musical and radio dramas, and is now the subject of an exhibition combining art and science at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia.

Retelling the Batavia horrors

Within a few months of the shipwreck, the first short accounts appeared in print in the Netherlands. In 1647 these were followed by the publication of Pelsaert’s notes under the title Ongeluckige Voyagie, Van ‘t Schip Batavia.
Unsurprisingly, Pelsaert’s sensational eyewitness account proved a considerable success. It was republished several times over the following decades.

Beacon Island in the Abrolhos Islands, site of the Batavia wreck.
Guy de la Bedoyere/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The gruesome Abrolhos murders somewhat faded from view during the 18th and early 19th centuries. But by the 1890s they had re-entered the public imagination, not least because Perth’s Western Mail chose, somewhat curiously, its Christmas issue (1897) to publish a full English translation of Pelsaert’s account.

Since then there have been numerous novels and retellings of the tale. Bruce Beresford directed a 1973 TV movie. Many stories have been accompanied by illustrations. But the wreck has provoked surprisingly little response from visual artists.

Meditating on mortality

In the new exhibition, two Perth-based artists, Robert Cleworth and Paul Uhlmann, collaborated with a team of archaeologists from the University of Western Australia, who recently excavated several new burials of the murder victims on Beacon Island. The exhibition features a presentation of these recent digs and projections of the grave sites alongside works by Cleworth and Uhlmann. By referencing skeletons and skulls, the two artists create new forms of contemporary memento mori, or artworks that remind us we all must die.

Paul Uhlmann, Batavia 4th June 1629 (night of my sickness), 2017, oil on canvas (detail, one of three panels).
Courtesy of the artist

Much of the work on display is inspired by the art and life of Johannes Torrentius, a Dutch painter convicted in 1628 for his alleged blasphemy, heresy and Satanism. Although not aboard the Batavia, Torrentius was widely believed to have inspired Cornelisz in his gruesome deeds.

Besides his heretical statements on religion, Torrentius had offended Dutch Calvinists with a number of bawdy pictures. All of these transgressive works were destroyed, yet titles such as A Woman Pissing in a Man’s Ear give some indication of their subject matter.

Ironically, the only Torrentius painting to have survived is an allegorical still life that warns against immoderate behaviour. During his lifetime, the painter would have created numerous vanitas paintings, works that address life’s vanities, assisted by a camera obscura, a darkened box in which a lens projects an external image – a forerunner to our modern cameras.

Paul Uhlmann, Batavia skull (camera obscura I), 2015, photo print on aluminium.
Courtesy of the artist.

Uhlmann has used the same device to create a triptych of photo prints that show the skull of one of the Batavia murder victims from three different angles. The skull, recovered in 1964, was missing a small bone fragment, the result of a blow to the head. This fragment was unearthed during the latest excavations. Uhlmann has used both the skill and the fragment in his study to demonstrate the impermanence of life and the transience of the skull.

Skulls also feature prominently in the paintings on display by Cleworth, and not just skulls of humans but also that of a wallaby. The skull testifies to the hunger and hardship of the victims: wallabies were not indigenous to Beacon Island and must have been brought there by the shipwreck survivors. This is another example of how art and science are brought together in this show.

Robert Cleworth, memento mori – two hands, 2017, oil on panel.
Courtesy of the artist

A second painting by Cleworth shows two hands hovering in front of a deep-blue background. The broad brushstrokes evoke the sea surrounding the islands. The hands are those of the lead mutineer, Cornelisz.

Somewhat ironically, no one died by these hands during the reign of terror. Cornelisz had ordered his cronies to kill, rather than committing the murders himself. Nevertheless, when Pelsaert returned to Batavia’s Graveyard and immediately dispensed justice, he ordered Cornelisz’s hands be chopped off before he was hanged on the gallows.

These artworks don’t simply retell the story of the Batavia and its cruel aftermath. They explore the nexus of art and science, using processes similar to those of the 17th century. They not only offer reflections on the unimaginable cruelty that took place four centuries ago, but provoke a new reading of past events.


The ConversationBatavia: Giving Voice to the Voiceless is at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery until December 9 2017.

Arvi Wattel, Lecturer, UWA School of Design, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Cave dig shows the earliest Australians enjoyed a coastal lifestyle



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Three main excavation squares within Boodie Cave.
Peter Veth, Author provided

Sean Ulm, James Cook University; Ingrid Ward, Flinders University; Peter Veth, University of Western Australia, and Tiina Manne, The University of Queensland

Archaeological excavations in a remote island cave off northwest Australia reveal incredible details of the early use by people of the continent’s now-submerged coast. The Conversation

Out latest study reveals that at lower sea levels, this island was used as a hunting shelter between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago, and then as a residential base for family groups by 8,000 years ago.

As the dates for the first Aboriginal arrival in Australia are pushed back further and further, it is becoming clear how innovative the original colonists must have been.

The earliest known archaeological sites so far reported are found in inland Australia, such as Warratyi rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges and Madjedbebe in Arnhem Land. These places are a long way from the sea, and were once even more so when past sea levels were lower and the coast even more distant.

But we do know that the earliest Australians were originally seafarers. They came from island southeast Asia and no matter which route they followed had to make sea crossings of up to 90km to get here.

The earliest landfall on the continent is now likely to be at least 50m below the present ocean. Until now we have known very little about these first coastal peoples.

Our research, published this week in Quaternary Science Reviews, begins to fill in some of these gaps.

Island dig

For the past five years an international team of 30 scientists has been working in collaboration with the Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation and Kuruma Marthudunera Aboriginal Corporation on Boodie Cave, a deep limestone cave on the remote Barrow Island, off the Western Australia coast.

Since the initial early dates for Boodie Cave were reported in 2015, our team has been forensically analysing the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental remains, as well as re-dating the site to build up a robust picture of the lives of the people who lived here.

PhD student Fiona Hook at the Boodie Cave excavation.
Kane Ditchfield

The results from radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence dating techniques from four independent dating laboratories show that Boodie Cave was first occupied between 51,100 and 46,200 years ago.

These dates make Boodie Cave one of the earliest known locations in the settlement of Australia and the earliest site anywhere near the coast.

Project leader Peter Veth discusses the significance of the Boodie Cave discoveries.

Mainland connection

When Boodie Cave was first occupied, Barrow Island was part of the mainland, with the shoreline between 10km and 20km further west.

The shoreline became even more distant as the planet moved into an ice age and sea levels dropped to 125m below present, around 20,000 years ago. Shortly thereafter global temperatures warmed and, as the ice melted, sea levels rose quickly.

Throughout this long period people returned again and again to Boodie Cave. The limestone that forms the cave provides ideal conditions for preservation, giving us incredible details about the people who lived there.

The cave contains one of Australia’s longest dietary records. These animal remains provide us with profound insights into what people were hunting and collecting from initial settlement onwards, and how they adapted to a new and ever-changing arid landscape.

PhD students Jane Skippington and Kane Ditchfield sorting material excavated from Boodie Cave.
Bob Sheppard

Besides wallabies, kangaroos and other terrestrial animals, the archaeological deposits contain marine shells transported from the distant coast.

In the deepest levels, when the shoreline was 20km or so distant, there are only four different types of shellfish that we have directly radiocarbon dated to 42,300 years ago. These shells represent the first direct evidence of marine resource use in Australia, and some of the earliest in our region.

Marine shell dating up to 40,000 years ago was excavated from Boodie Cave, including this baler shell artefact dating to around 6,800 years ago.
Fiona Hook

With rising sea levels the coastline came closer to the cave and the number and variety of marine resources increased exponentially.

By 8,000 years ago, there are 40 different types of marine shells as well as exceptionally well-preserved remains of sea urchin, mud crab, reef fish, marine turtle, marine mammal and a variety of small and medium-sized terrestrial animals.

By 6,800 years ago the cave and the whole island was abandoned as rising sea levels finally cut it off from the mainland.

Hunting shelter

We argue that Boodie Cave was used as an inland hunting shelter between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago before becoming a residential base for family groups by 8,000 years ago.

Dietary remains in addition to shell artefacts, incised shells, shell beads and thousands of stone artefacts show that Boodie Cave was a frequently visited location on the landscape.

Boodie Cave is located on the second bluff in the centre of the photograph.
Kane Ditchfield

Our study clearly shows that not only were Aboriginal people continuing to use marine resources across a period of dramatic environmental change, but they were also exploiting a range of desert resources. This demonstrates a successful adaptation to both the coasts and deserts of northern Australia.

Recent genetic studies suggest that colonisation was coastal, with people rapidly moving around the east and west coasts of Australia before meeting up in modern South Australia.

But the coasts along which the earliest Australians traversed were very different to today’s, not only in terms of ecology but also in distance. In some places the earlier coastline would have been hundreds of kilometres from its present position.

Peter Veth (left) with Thalanyi elders Anne Hayes, Roslyn Davison and Jane Hyland at Boodie Cave on Barrow Island.
Peter Veth

Sea levels rise

Over the past 20,000 years sea level has risen 125m, submerging the continental shelves surrounding Australia and separating the mainland from New Guinea and Tasmania.

Our findings provide a unique window into the now-drowned Northwest Shelf of Australia.

Lead archaeologist Peter Veth excavating a rich layer of dietary remains and artefacts below the surface of Boodie Cave.
Kane Ditchfield

Boodie Cave provides the earliest evidence for coastal living in Australia and gives us an indication that coastal resources have been important to people since initial colonisation.

Nearly one-third of Australia’s landmass was drowned after the last ice age and along with it evidence for coastal use by some of the earliest Australians.

Thousands of archaeological sites have been recorded on the continental shelves of Europe, Asia and the Americas, but no submerged prehistoric sites have been reported anywhere off Australia.

These submerged landscapes of Australia open up an entirely new frontier of archaeological research and will shed even further light on the lives of the first people to arrive on Australian shores.

Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University; Ingrid Ward, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow on the ARC DP Deep History of Sea Country project administered by Flinders University, Flinders University; Peter Veth, Professor of Archaeology, University of Western Australia, and Tiina Manne, ARC DECRA Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Dirk Hartog’s Plate Back in Australia… For Now


The link below is to an article reporting on the arrival of Dirk Hartog’s plate in Australia for a limited time in Western Australia.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/aug/31/hartog-dish-oldest-european-object-left-in-australia-returns-after-400-years


Article: Australia – The Mistake Creek Massacre


The link below is to an article that takes a fresh look at the Mistake Creek Massacre that occurred in the eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1915.

For more visit:
http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/what-became-of-the-mistake-creek-massacre/651/


Today in History – 22 May 1840


Australia – New South Wales: Transportation of Convicts to New South Wales Ended

On this day in 1840, the transportation of convicts to the colony of New South Wales in Australia ended. Transportation of convicts to New South Wales began with the departure of the first convicts from England on the 13th May 1787, with the first convicts arriving at Botany Bay on the 20th January 1788. Transportation of convicts continued in to other areas of Australia until the last ship arrived in Western Australia on the 10th January 1868.

 


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