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Warren Hastings

Warren HastingsBorn: 6-Dec-1732
Birthplace: Churchill, Oxfordshire, England
Died: 22-Aug-1818
Location of death: Daylesford, Oxfordshire, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Government

Nationality: England
Executive summary: First Governor-General of India

The first governor-general of British India, born on the 6th of December 1732 in the little hamlet of Churchill in Oxfordshire. He came of a family which had been settled for many generations in the adjoining village of Daylesford; but his great-grandfather had sold the ancestral manor-house, and his grandfather had been unable to maintain himself in possession of the family living. His mother died a few days after giving him birth; his father, Pynaston Hastings, drifted away to perish obscurely in the West Indies. Thus unfortunate in his birth, young Hastings received the elements of education at a charity school in his native village. At the age of eight he was taken in charge by an elder brother of his father, Howard Hastings, who held a post in the customs. After spending two years at a private school at Newington Butts, he was moved to Westminster, where among his contemporaries occur the names of Lord Thurlow and Lord Shelburne, Sir Elijah Impey, and the poets William Cowper and Charles Churchill. In 1749, when his headmaster Dr. Nichols was already anticipating for him a successful career at the university, his uncle died, leaving him to the care of a distant kinsman, Mr. Creswicke, who was afterwards in the direction of the East India Company; and he determined to send his ward to seek his fortune as a "writer" in Bengal.

When Hastings landed at Calcutta in October 1750 the affairs of the East India Company were at a low ebb. Throughout the entire south of the peninsula French influence was predominant. The settlement of Fort St. George or Madras, captured by force of arms, had only recently been restored in accordance with a clause of the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. The organizing genius of Dupleix everywhere overshadowed the native imagination, and the star of Clive had scarcely yet risen above the horizon. The rivalry between the English and the French, which had already convulsed the south, did not penetrate to Bengal. That province was under the able government of Ali Vardi Khan, who peremptorily forbade the foreign settlers at Calcutta and Chandernagore to introduce feuds from Europe. The duties of a young "writer" were then such as are implied in the name. At an early date Hastings was placed in charge of an aurang or factory in the interior, where his duties would be to superintend the weaving of silk and cotton goods under a system of money advances. In 1753 he was transferred to Cossimbazar, the river-port of the native capital of Murshidabad. In 1756 the old nawab died, and was succeeded by his grandson Suraj ud Dowlah, a young madman of 19, whose name is indelibly associated with the tragedy of the Black Hole. When that passionate young prince, in revenge for a fancied wrong, resolved to drive the English out of Bengal, his first step was to occupy the fortified factory at Cossimbazar, and make prisoners of Hastings and his companions. Hastings was soon released at the intercession of the Dutch resident, and made use of his position at Murshidabad to open negotiations with the English fugitives at Falta, the site of a Dutch factory near the mouth of the Hugli. In later days he used to refer with pride to his services on this occasion, when he was first initiated into the wiles of Oriental diplomacy. After a while he found it necessary to fly from the Mahommedan court and join the main body of the English at Falta. When the relieving force arrived from Madras under Colonel Clive and Admiral Watson, Hastings enrolled himself as a volunteer, and took part in the action which led to the recovery of Calcutta. Clive showed his appreciation of Hastings's merits by appointing him in 1758 to the important post of resident at the court of Murshidabad. It was there that he first came into collision with the Bengali Brahman, Nuncomar, whose subsequent fate has supplied more material for controversy than any other episode in his career. During his three years of office as resident he was able to render not a few valuable services to the Company; but it is more important to observe that his name nowhere occurs in the official lists of those who derived pecuniary profit from the necessities and weakness of the native court. In 1761 he was promoted to be member of council, under the presidency of Mr. Vansittart, who had been introduced by Clive from Madras. The period of Vansittart's government has been truly described as "the most revolting page of our Indian history." The entire duties of administration were suffered to remain in the hands of the nawab, while a few irresponsible English traders had drawn to themselves all real power. The members of council, the commanders of the troops, and the commercial residents plundered on a grand scale. The youngest servant of the Company claimed the right of trading on his own account, free from taxation and from local jurisdiction, not only for himself but also for every native subordinate whom he might permit to use his name. It was this exemption, threatening the very foundations of the Mussulman government, that finally led to a rupture with the nawab. Macaulay, in his celebrated essay, has said that "of the conduct of Hastings at this time little is known." As a matter of fact, the book which Macaulay was professing to review describes at length the honorable part consistently taken by Hastings in opposition to the great majority of the council. Sometimes in conjunction only with Vansittart, sometimes absolutely alone, he protested unceasingly against the policy and practices of his colleagues. On one occasion he was stigmatized in a minute by Mr. Batson with "having espoused the nawab's cause, and as a hired solicitor defended all his actions, however dishonourable and detrimental to the Company." An altercation ensued. Batson gave him the lie and struck him in the council chamber. When war was actually begun, Hastings officially recorded his previous resolution to have resigned, in order to repudiate responsibility for measures which he had always opposed. Waiting only for the decisive victory of Buxar over the allied forces of Bengal and Oudh, he resigned his seat and sailed for England in November 1764.

After fourteen years' residence in Bengal Hastings did not return home a rich man, estimated by the opportunities of his position. According to the custom of the time he had augmented his slender salary by private trade. At a later date he was charged by Edmund Burke with having taken up profitable contracts for supplying bullocks for the use of the Company's troops. It is admitted that he conducted by means of agents a large business in timber in the Gangetic Sundarbans. When at Falta he had married Mrs. Buchanan, the widow of an officer. She bore him two children, of whom one died in infancy at Murshidabad, and was shortly followed to the grave by her mother. Their common gravestone is in existence at the present day, bearing date July 11, 1759. The other child, a son, was sent to England, and also died shortly before his father's return. While at home Hastings is said to have attached himself to literary society; and it may be inferred from his own letters that he now made the personal acquaintance of Samuel Johnson and Lord Mansfield. In 1766 he was called upon to give evidence before a committee of the House of Commons upon the affairs of Bengal. The good sense and clearness of the views which he expressed caused attention to be paid to his desire to be again employed in India. His pecuniary affairs were embarrassed, partly from the liberality with which he had endowed his few surviving relatives. The great influence of Lord Clive was also exercised on his behalf. At last, in the winter of 1768, he received the appointment of second in council at Madras. Among his companions on his voyage round the Cape were the Baron Imhoff, a speculative portrait-painter, and his wife, a lady of some personal attractions and great social charm, who was destined henceforth to be Hastings's lifelong companion. Of his two years' work at Madras it is needless to speak in detail. He won the goodwill of his employers by devoting himself to the improvement of their manufacturing business, and he kept his hands clean from the prevalent taint of pecuniary transactions with the nawab of the Carnatic. One fact of some interest is not generally known. He drew up a scheme for the construction of a pier at Madras, to avoid the dangers of landing through the surf, and instructed his brother-in-law in England to obtain estimates from the engineers Brindley and Smeaton.

In the beginning of 1772 his ambition was stimulated by the nomination to the second place in council in Bengal with a promise of the reversion of the governorship when Mr. Cartier should retire. Since his departure from Bengal in 1764 the situation of affairs in that settlement had scarcely improved. The second governorship of Clive was marked by the transfer of the diwani or financial administration from the Mogul emperor to the Company, and by the enforcement of stringent regulations against the besetting sin of peculation. But Clive was followed by two inefficient successors; and in 1770 occurred the most terrible Indian famine on record, which is credibly estimated to have swept away one-third of the population. In April 1772 Warren Hastings took his seat as president of the council at Fort William. His first care was to carry out the instructions received from home, and effect a radical reform in the system of government. Clive's plan of governing through the agency of the native court had proved a failure. The directors were determined "to stand forth as diwan, and take upon themselves by their own servants the entire management of the revenues." All the officers of administration were transferred from Murshidabad to Calcutta, which Hastings boasted at this early date that he would make the first city in Asia. This reform involved the ruin of many native reputations, and for a second time brought Hastings into collision with the wily Brahman, Nuncomar. At the same time a settlement of the land revenue on leases for five years was begun, and the police and military systems of the country were placed upon a new footing. Hastings was a man of immense industry, with an insatiable appetite for detail. The whole of this large series of reforms was conducted under his own personal supervision, and upon no part of his multifarious labors did he dwell in his letters home with greater pride. As an independent measure of economy, the stipend paid to the titular nawab of Bengal, who was then a minor, was reduced by one-half to sixteen lakhs a year (say £160,000). Macaulay imputes this reduction to Hastings as a characteristic act of financial immorality; but in truth it had been expressly enjoined by the court of directors, in a despatch dated six months before he took up office. His pecuniary bargains with Suraj ud Dowlah, the nawab wazir of Oudh, stand on a different basis. Hastings himself always regarded them as incidents in his general scheme of foreign policy. The Mahrattas at this time had got possession of the person of the Mogul emperor, Shah Alam, from whom Clive obtained the grant of Bengal in 1765, and to whom he assigned in return the districts of Allahabad and Kora and a tribute of £300,000. With the emperor in their camp, the Mahrattas were threatening the province of Oudh, and causing a large British force to be cantoned along the frontier for its defense. Warren Hastings, as a deliberate measure of policy, withheld the tribute due to the emperor, and resold Allahabad and Kora to the wazir of Oudh. The Mahrattas retreated, and all danger for the time was dissipated by the death of their principal leader. The wazir now bethought him that he had a good opportunity for satisfying an old quarrel against the adjoining tribe of Rohillas, who had played fast and loose with him while the Mahratta army was at hand. The Rohillas were a race of Afghan origin, who had established themselves for some generations in a fertile tract west of Oudh, between the Himalayas and the Ganges, which still bears the name of Rohilkhand. They were not so much the occupiers of the soil as a dominant caste of warriors and freebooters. But in those troubled days their title was as good as any to be found in India. After not a little hesitation, Hastings consented to allow the Company's troops to be used to further the ambitious designs of his Oudh ally, in consideration of a sum of money which relieved the ever-pressing wants of the Bengal treasury. The Rohillas were defeated in fair fight. Some of them fled the country, and so far as possible Hastings obtained terms for those who remained. The fighting, no doubt, on the part of the wazir was conducted with all the savagery of Oriental warfare; but there is no evidence that it was a war of extermination.

Meanwhile, the affairs of the East India Company had come under the consideration of parliament. The Regulating Act, passed by Lord North's. ministry in 1773, effected considerable changes in the constitution of the Bengal government. The council was reduced to four members with a governor-general, who were to exercise certain indefinite powers of control over the presidencies of Madras and Bombay. Hastings was named in the act as governor-general for a term of five years. The council consisted of General Clavering and the Hon. Colonel Monson, two third-rate politicians of considerable parliamentary influence; Philip Francis, then only known as an able permanent official; and Barwell, of the Bengal Civil Service. At the same time a supreme court of judicature was appointed, composed of a chief and three puisne judges, to exercise an indeterminate jurisdiction at Calcutta. The chief-justice was Sir Elijah Impey, already mentioned as a schoolfellow of Hastings at Westminster. The whole tendency of the Regulating Act was to establish for the first time the influence of the crown, or rather of parliament, in Indian affairs. The new members of council disembarked at Calcutta on the 19th of October 1774; and on the following day commenced the long feud which scarcely terminated twenty-one years later with the acquittal of Warren Hastings by the House of Lords. Macaulay states that the members of council were put in ill-humor because their salute of guns was not proportionate to their dignity. In a contemporary letter Francis thus expresses the same petty feeling: "Surely Mr H. might have put on a ruffled shirt." Taking advantage of an ambiguous clause in their commission, the majority of the council (for Barwell uniformly sided with Hastings) forthwith proceeded to pass in review the recent measures of the governor-general. All that he had done they condemned; all that they could they reversed. Hastings was reduced to the position of a cipher at their meetings. After a time they lent a ready ear to detailed allegations of corruption brought against him by his old enemy Nuncomar. To charges from such a source, and brought in such a manner, Hastings disdained to reply, and referred his accuser to the supreme court. The majority of the council, in their executive capacity, resolved that the governor-general had been guilty of peculation, and ordered him to refund. A few days later Nuncomar was thrown into prison on a charge of forgery preferred by a private prosecutor, tried before the supreme court sitting in bar, found guilty by a jury of Englishmen and sentenced to be hanged. Hastings always maintained that he did not cause the charge to be instituted, and the legality of Nuncomar's trial is thoroughly proved by Sir James Stephen. The majority of the council abandoned their supporter, who was executed in due course. He had forwarded a petition for reprieve to the council, which Clavering took care should not be presented in time, and which was subsequently burnt by the common hangman on the motion of Francis. While the strife was at its hottest, Hastings had sent an agent to England with a general authority to place his resignation in the hands of the Company under certain conditions. The agent thought fit to exercise that authority. The resignation was promptly accepted, and one of the directors was appointed to the vacancy. But in the meantime Colonel Monson had died, and Hastings was thus restored, by virtue of his casting vote, to the supreme management of affairs. He refused to ratify his resignation; and when Clavering attempted to seize on the governor-generalship, he judiciously obtained an opinion from the judges of the supreme court in his favor. From that time forth, though he could not always command an absolute majority in council, Hastings was never again subjected to gross insult, and his general policy was able to prevail.

A crisis was now approaching in foreign affairs which demanded all the experience and all the genius of Hastings for its solution. Bengal was prosperous, and free from external enemies on every quarter. But the government of Bombay had hurried on a rupture with the Mahratta confederacy at a time when France was on the point of declaring war against England, and when the mother-country found herself unable to subdue her rebellious colonists in America. Hastings did not hesitate to take upon his own shoulders the whole responsibility of military affairs. All the French settlements in India were promptly occupied. On the part of Bombay, the Mahratta war was conducted with procrastination and disgrace. But Hastings amply avenged the capitulation of Wargaon by the complete success of his own plan of operations. Colonel Goddard with a Bengal army marched across the breadth of the peninsula from the valley of the Ganges to the western sea, and achieved almost without a blow the conquest of Gujarat. Captain Popham, with a small detachment, stormed the rock fortress of Gwalior, then deemed impregnable and the key of central India; and by this feat held in check Sindhia, the most formidable of the Mahratta chiefs. The Bhonsla Mahratta raja of Nagpur, whose dominions bordered on Bengal, was won over by the diplomacy of an emissary of Hastings. But while these events were taking place, a new source of embarrassment had arisen at Calcutta. The supreme court, whether rightly or wrongly, assumed a jurisdiction of first instance over the entire province of Bengal. The English common law, with all the absurdities and rigors of that day, was arbitrarily extended to an alien system of society. Zamíndárs, or government renters, were arrested on mesne process; the sanctity of the zenána, or women's chamber, as dear to Hindus as to Mahommedans, was violated by the sheriff's officer; the deepest feelings of the people and the entire fabric of revenue administration were alike disregarded. On this point the entire council acted in harmony. Hastings and Francis went joint-bail for imprisoned natives of distinction. At last, after the dispute between the judges and the executive threatened to become a trial of armed force, Hastings set it at rest by a characteristic stroke of policy. A new judicial office was created in the name of the Company, to which Sir Elijah Impey was appointed, though he never consented to draw the additional salary offered to him. The understanding between Hastings and Francis, originating in this state of affairs, was for a short period extended to general policy. An agreement was come to by which Francis received patronage for his circle of friends, while Hastings was to be unimpeded in the control of foreign affairs. But a difference of interpretation arose. Hastings recorded in an official minute that he had found Francis's private and public conduct to be "void of truth and honour." They met as duellists. Francis fell wounded, and soon afterwards returned to England.

The Mahratta war was not yet terminated, but a far more formidable danger now threatened the English in India. The imprudent conduct of the Madras authorities had irritated beyond endurance the two greatest Mussulman powers in the peninsula, the nizam of the Deccan and Hyder Ali, the usurper of Mysore, who began to negotiate an alliance with the Mahrattas. A second time the genius of Hastings saved the British empire in the east. On the arrival of the news that Hyder had descended from the highlands of Mysore, cut to pieces the only British army in the field, and swept the Carnatic up to the gates of Madras, he at once adopted a policy of extraordinary boldness. He signed a blank treaty of peace with the Mahrattas, who were still in arms, reversed the action of the Madras government towards the nizam, and concentrated all the resources of Bengal against Hyder Ali. Sir Eyre Coote, a general of renown in former Carnatic wars, was sent by sea to Madras with all the troops and treasure that could be got together; and a strong body of reinforcements subsequently marched southwards under Colonel Pearse along the coast line of Orissa. The landing of Coote preserved Madras from destruction, though the war lasted through many campaigns and only terminated with the death of Hyder. Pearse's detachment was decimated by an epidemic of cholera (perhaps the first mention of this disease by name in Indian history); but the survivors penetrated to Madras, and not only held in check Bhonsla and the nizam, but also corroborated the lesson taught by Goddard -- that the Company's sepoys could march anywhere, when boldly led. Hastings's personal task was to provide the ways and means for this exhausting war. A considerable economy was effected by a reform in the establishment for collecting the land tax. The government monopolies of opium and salt were then for the first time placed upon a remunerative basis. But these reforms were of necessity slow in their beneficial operation. The pressing demands of the military chest had to be satisfied by loans, and in at least one case from the private purse of the governor-general. Ready cash could alone fill up the void; and it was to the hoards of native princes that Hastings's fertile mind at once turned. Chait Sing, raja of Benares, the greatest of the vassal chiefs who had grown rich under the protection of the British rule, lay under the suspicion of disloyalty. The wazir of Oudh had fallen into arrears in the payment due for the maintenance of the Company's garrison posted in his dominions, and his administration was in great disorder. In his case the ancestral hoards were under the control of his mother, the begum of Oudh, into whose hands they had been allowed to pass at the time when Hastings was powerless in council. Hastings resolved to make a progress up country in order to arrange the affairs of both provinces, and bring back all the treasure that could be squeezed out of its holders by his personal intervention. When he reached Benares and presented his demands, the raja rose in insurrection, and the governor-general barely escaped with his life. But the faithful Popham rapidly rallied a force for his defense. The insurgents were defeated again and again; Chait Sing took to flight, and an augmented permanent tribute was imposed upon his successor. The Oudh business was managed with less risk. The wazir consented to everything demanded of him. The begum was charged with having abetted Chait Sing in his rebellion; and after the severest pressure applied to herself and her attendant eunuchs, a fine of more than a million sterling was exacted from her. Hastings appears to have been not altogether satisfied with the incidents of this expedition, and to have anticipated the censure which it received in England. As a measure of precaution, he procured documentary evidence of the rebellious intentions of the raja and the begum, to the validity of which Impey obligingly lent his extra-judicial sanction.

The remainder of Hastings's term of office in India was passed in comparative tranquillity, both from internal opposition and foreign war. The center of interest now shifts to the India House and to the British parliament. The long struggle between the Company and the ministers of the crown for the supreme control of Indian affairs and the attendant patronage had reached its climax. The decisive success of Hastings's administration alone postponed the inevitable solution. His original term of five years would have expired in 1778; but it was annually prolonged by special act of parliament until his voluntary resignation. Though Hastings was thus irremovable, his policy did not escape censure. Ministers were naturally anxious to obtain the reversion to his vacant post, and Indian affairs formed at this time the hinge on which party politics turned. On one occasion Dundas carried a motion in the House of Commons, censuring Hastings and demanding his recall. The directors of the Company were disposed to act upon this resolution; but in the court of proprietors, with whom the decision ultimately lay, Hastings always possessed a sufficient majority. Fox's India Bill led to the downfall of the Coalition ministry in 1783. The act which Pitt successfully carried in the following year introduced a new constitution, in which Hastings felt that he had no place. In February 1785 he finally sailed from Calcutta, after a dignified ceremony of resignation, and amid enthusiastic farewells from all classes.

On his arrival in England, after a second absence of sixteen years, he was not displeased with the reception he met with at court and in the country. A peerage was openly talked of as his due, while his own ambition pointed to some responsible office at home. Pitt had never taken a side against him, while Lord Chancellor Thurlow was his pronounced friend. But he was now destined to learn that his enemy Francis, whom he had discomfited in the council chamber at Calcutta, was more than his match in the parliamentary arena. Edmund Burke had taken the subject races of India under the protection of his eloquence. Francis, who had been the early friend of Burke, supplied him with the personal animus against Hastings, and with the knowledge of detail, which he might otherwise have lacked. The Whig party on this occasion unanimously followed Burke's lead. Dundas, Pitt's favorite subordinate, had already committed himself by his earlier resolution of censure; and Pitt was induced by motives which are still obscure to incline the ministerial majority to the same side. To meet the oratory of Edmund Burke and Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Charles James Fox, Hastings wrote an elaborate minute with which he wearied the ears of the House for two successive nights, and he subsidized a swarm of pamphleteers. The impeachment was decided upon in 1786, but the actual trial did not commence until 1788. For seven long years Hastings was upon his defense on the charge of "high crimes and misdemeanors." During this anxious period he appears to have borne himself with characteristic dignity, such as is consistent with no other hypothesis than the consciousness of innocence. At last, in 1795, the House of Lords gave a verdict of not guilty on all charges laid against him; and he left the bar at which he had so frequently appeared, with his reputation clear, but ruined in fortune. However large the wealth he brought back from India, all was swallowed up in defraying the expenses of his trial. Continuing the line of conduct which in most other men would be called hypocrisy, he forwarded a petition to Pitt praying that he might be reimbursed his costs from the public funds. This petition, of course, was rejected. At last, when he was reduced to actual destitution, it was arranged that the East India Company should grant him an annuity of £4000 for a term of years, with £90,000 paid down in advance. This annuity expired before his death; and he was compelled to make more than one fresh appeal to the bounty of the Company, which was never withheld. Shortly before his acquittal he had been able to satisfy the dream of his childhood, by buying back the ancestral manor of Daylesford, where the remainder of his life was passed in honorable retirement. In 1813 he was called on to give evidence upon Indian affairs before the two houses of parliament, which received him with exceptional marks of respect. The university of Oxford conferred on him the honorary degree of D.C.L.; and in the following year he was sworn of the privy council, and took a prominent part in the reception given to the Duke of Wellington and the allied sovereigns. He died on the 22nd of August 1818, in his 86th year, and lies buried behind the chancel of the parish church, which he had recently restored at his own charges.

In physical appearance, Hastings "looked like a great man, and not like a bad man." The body was wholly subjugated to the mind. A frame naturally slight had been further attenuated by rigorous habits of temperance, and thus rendered proof against the diseases of the tropics. Against his private character not even calumny has breathed a reproach. As brother, as husband and as friend, his affections were as steadfast as they were warm. By the public he was always regarded as reserved, but within his own inner circle he gave and received perfect confidence. In his dealings with money, he was characterized rather by liberality of expenditure than by carefulness of acquisition. A classical education and the instincts of family pride saved him from both the greed and the vulgar display which marked the typical "nabob", the self-made man of those days. He could support the position of a governor-general and of a country gentleman with equal credit. Concerning his second marriage, it suffices to say that the Baroness Imhoff was nearly forty years of age, with a family of grown-up children, when the complaisant law of her native land allowed her to become Mrs. Hastings. She survived her husband, who cherished towards her to the last the sentiments of a lover. Her children he adopted as his own; and it was chiefly for her sake that he desired the peerage which was twice held out to him.

Hastings's public career will probably never cease to be a subject of controversy. It was his misfortune to be the scapegoat upon whose head parliament laid the accumulated sins, real and imaginary, of the East India Company. If the acquisition of the Indian empire can be supported on ethical grounds, Hastings needs no defense. No one who reads his private correspondence will admit that even his least defensible acts were dictated by dishonorable motives. It is more pleasing to point out certain of his public measures upon which no difference of opinion can arise. He was the first to attempt to open a trade route with Tibet, and to organize a survey of Bengal and of the eastern seas. It was he who persuaded the pundits of Bengal to disclose the treasures of Sanskrit to European scholars. He founded the Madrasa or college for Mahommedan education at Calcutta, primarily out of his own funds; and he projected the foundation of an Indian institute in England. The Bengal Asiatic Society was established under his auspices, though he yielded the post of president to Sir W. Jones. No Englishman ever understood the native character so well as Hastings; none ever devoted himself more heartily to the promotion of every scheme, great and small, that could advance the prosperity of India. Natives and Anglo-Indians alike venerate his name, the former as their first beneficent administrator, the latter as the most able and the most enlightened of their own class. If Clive's sword conquered the Indian empire, it was the brain of Hastings that planned the system of civil administration, and his genius that saved the empire in its darkest hour.

Father: Pynaston Hastings

    Governor-General of India (1773-85)
    Corruption impeached 1787, acquitted 1795
    Duel with Sir Philip Francis

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