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Kamehameha: The Founding of the Hawaiian Kingdom
By Selected News Articles @ 3:30 PM :: 28433 Views :: Hawaii History

A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island

Overview of Hawaiian History

by Diane Lee Rhodes (with some additions by Linda Wedel Greene) National Parks Service

Chapter 4: Founding of the Hawaiian Kingdom

A. Reign of King Kamehameha

1. Political Warfare in Ancient Hawai'i

Warfare was a familiar part of early Hawaiian life. Interludes of peace were often broken by fierce battles to determine succession to the office of ali'i-nui and to establish political boundaries. Aspiring young chiefs practiced the arts of warfare with great intensity. Typically, having defeated other chiefs to gain control over one island, a major chief and his warriors would then raid and attempt to conquer other islands. Death of a reigning king almost always meant war. Large-scale political activity and territorial expansion by conquest was characteristic of the decade and a half following Captain Cook's arrival.

It is ironic that Cook's arrival was thought to be the return of Lono, the god of peace and plenty. Once the Hawaiians discovered Cook was not a god, warfare resumed among the four interrelated chiefs who had split the island archipelago into four chiefdoms. During the two decades following Cook's visit, intense rivalry among these intensified. Beginning in 1786, other foreign ships called at the islands, introducing trade and new technology and expertise to conduct warfare. Rituals and offerings to Ku, the god of war, increasingly occupied the hearts and hands of the populace, the warriors, and the priests. As the local economies were drained by warfare, the chiefs of Hawai'i and Maui began to assume more power, for those islands had larger populations and richer resource bases to draw upon.

By the 1780s warfare had become institutionalized, with formal rules and rituals. The ali'i built and consecrated luakini (state temples) and conducted sacrifices, prayers, and ceremonies. Kahuna were consulted to determine the best time to attack. The chiefs acquired war experts who passed on their combat skills to young warriors. Warfare skills were honed during athletic contests held during the Makahiki festival, which, however, marked a suspension in actual warfare from October to February each year.

Trading contributed to the increased warfare, which previously had, to a certain degree, been kept in check by limited weaponry and by economics. Unfortunately, as more foreign traders and travelers came to the islands, the populace acquired powerful new weapons of war whose killing power was far greater than the stones and spears traditionally employed. Trading also brought new sources of wealth with which to gain power and thus increased rivalry among the chiefs.

2. Kamehameha's Rise to Power, 1758-1819

King Kamehameha was one of the most striking figures in Hawaiian history, a leader who united and ruled the islands during a time of great cultural change.

Accounts vary, but many authors think that Kamehameha (originally named Pai'ea) was born into a royal family in North Kohala sometime between 1753 and 1761, possibly in November 1758.

Kamehameha's mother was Kekuiapoiwa, daughter of a Kona chief. His father was probably Keoua, chief of Kohala. Legends link his birth to storms and strange lights, activities thought by Hawaiians to herald the birth of a great chief.

Because of prognostications at his birth and threats from warring clans, Kamehameha was taken away and hidden immediately after his birth. He spent his early years secluded in Waipio, returning to Kailua at the age of five. He lived there with his parents until his father's death, then continued to receive special training from King Kalani'opu'u, his uncle. This training included skills in games, warfare, oral history, navigation, religious ceremonies, and other information necessary to become an ali'i-'ai-moku (a district chief)." By the time of Cook's arrival, Kamehameha had become a superb warrior who already carried the scars of a number of political and physical encounters.

The young warrior Kamehameha was described as a tall, strong, and physically fearless man who "moved in an aura of violence." Kamehameha accompanied his uncle (King Kalani'opu'u) aboard the Discovery, and history records that he conducted himself with valor during the battle in which Cook was killed. For his part in the battle at Kealakekua he achieved a certain level of notoriety, which he paraded "with an imperiousness that matched and even exceeded his rank as a high chief."

Kamehameha might never have become king except for a twist of fate. Within a year after Cook's death, the elderly ali'i Kalani'opu'u, crippled by age and disease, called together his retainers and divided his Hawaiian domain. His son Kiwala'o became his political heir. To his nephew Kamehameha, the elderly ali'i entrusted the war god Ku-ka'ili-moku. Although this pattern of dividing the succession of the chiefdom and the protectorate of the god Ku was legendary, some authors suggest it was also uncommon. As the eldest son, a chief of high rank, and the designated heir, Kiawala'o's claim to the island of Hawai'i was "clear and irrefutable." However, although Kamehameha was of lower rank, and only a nephew of the late king, his possession of the war god was a powerful incentive to political ambition. Thus the old chief's legacy had effectively "split the political decision-making power between individuals of unequal rank" and set the stage for civil war among the chiefs of the island of Hawai'i.

Although Kiwala'o was senior to Kamehameha, the latter soon began to challenge his authority. During the funeral for one of Kalani'opu'u's chiefs, Kamehameha stepped in and performed one of the rituals specifically reserved for Kiwala'o, an act that constituted a great insult.

After Kalani'opu'u died, in 1782, Kiwala'o took his bones to the royal burial house, Hale-o-Keawe, at Honaunau on the west coast of Hawai'i Island. Kamehameha and other western coast chiefs gathered nearby to drink and mourn his death. There are different versions of the events that followed. Bingham suggests that the old king had already divided the lands of the island of Hawai'i, giving his son Kiwala'o the districts of Ka'u, Puna, and Hilo. Kamehameha was to inherit the districts of Kona, Kohala, and Hamakua. It is not clear whether Kiwala'o's landing at Honaunau was to deify Kalani'opu'u's bones or to attempt seizure of the district of Kona. Daws suggests that Kamehameha and the other chiefs had gathered at Honaunau to await the redistribution of land, which usually occurred on the death of a chief, and to make hasty alliances. When it appeared that Kamehameha and his allies were not to receive what they considered their fair share, the battle for power and property began.

Over the next four years, numerous battles took place as well as a great deal of jockeying for position and privilege. Alliances were made and broken, but no one was able to gain a decisive advantage. The rulers of Hawai'i had reached a stalemate. Writing a century later, Stevens and Oleson assert that Kamehameha spent the years during this time improving his lands and completing public works before embarking on his "career of conquest."

Kamehameha's superior forces had several times won out over those of other warriors. He took Kiwala'o's daughter Keopuolani captive and made her one of his wives; he also took the child Ka'ahumanu (once mentioned as a wife for Kiwala'o) and "betrothed her to himself." He thus firmly established himself as an equal contender for control over the Hawaiian lands formerly ruled by Kalani'opu'u. Eventually Kiwala'o was killed in battle, but control of the Island of Hawai'i remained divided. By 1786 the old chief Kahekili, king of Maui, had become the most powerful ali'i in the islands, ruling O'ahu, Maui, Moloka'i, and Lana'i, and controlling Kaua'i and Ni'ihau through an agreement with his half-brother Ka'eokulani.

In 1790 Kamehameha and his army, aided by Isaac Davis and John Young, invaded Maui. The great chief Kahekili was on O'ahu, attempting to stem a revolt there. Using cannon salvaged from the Fair American,Kamehameha's warriors forced the Maui army into retreat, killing such a large number that the bodies dammed up a stream. However, Kamehameha's victory was short-lived, for one of his enemies, his cousin Keoua, chief of Puna and Ka'u, took advantage of Kamehameha's absence from Hawai'i to pillage and destroy villages on Hawai'i's west coast.

Returning to Hawai'i, Kamehameha fought Keoua in two fierce battles. Kamehameha then retired to the west coast of the island, while Keoua and his army moved southward, losing some of their group in a volcanic steam blast.

This civil war, which ended in 1790, was the last Hawaiian military campaign to be fought with traditional weapons. In future battles Kamehameha adopted Western technology, a factor that probably accounted for much of his success. Because of Kamehameha's presence at Kealakekua Bay during the 1790s, many of the foreign trading ships stopped there. Thus he was able to amass large quantities of firearms to use in battle against other leaders. However, the new weapons were expensive and contributed to large increases in the cost of warfare.

After almost a decade of fighting, Kamehameha had still not conquered all his enemies. So he heeded the advice of a seer on Kaua'i and erected a great new heiau at Pu'ukohola in Kawaihae for worship and for sacrifices to Kamehameha's war god Ku. Kamehameha hoped to thereby gain the spiritual power that would enable him to conquer the island. Some say that the rival chief Keoua was invited to Pu'ukohola to negotiate peace, but instead was killed and sacrificed on the heiau's altar. Others suggest that he was dispirited by the battles and was "induced to surrender himself at Kawaihae" before being killed. His death made Kamehameha ruler of the entire island of Hawai'i.

Meanwhile, Kahekili decided to take the advantage while Kamehameha was preoccupied with Keoua and assembled an army — including a foreign gunner, trained dogs, and a special group of ferociously tattooed men known as pahupu'u. They raided villages and defiled graves along the coasts of Hawai'i until challenged by Kamehameha. The ensuing sea battle (Battle of the Red-Mouthed Gun) was indecisive, and Kahekili withdrew safely to O'ahu.

Shortly thereafter, the English merchant William Brown, captain of the thirty-gun frigate Butterworth, discovered the harbor at Honolulu. Brown quickly made an agreement with Kahekili. The chief "ceded" the island of O'ahu (and perhaps Kaua'i) to Brown in return for military aid. Kamehameha also recognized the efficacy of foreign aid and sought assistance from Captain George Vancouver. Vancouver, a dedicated "man of empire," convinced Kamehameha to cede the island of Hawai'i to the British who would then help protect it. Kamehameha spent the next three years rebuilding the island's economy and learning warfare from visiting foreigners.

Upon Kahekili's death in 1794, the island of O'ahu went to his son Kalanikupule. His half-brother Ka'eokulani ruled over Kaua'i, Maui, Lana'i, and Moloka'i. The two went to war, each seeking to control all the islands. After a series of battles on O'ahu and heavy bombardment from Brown's ships, Ka'eokulani and most of his men were killed. Encouraged by the victory over his enemies, Kalanikupule decided to acquire English ships and military hardware to aid in his attack on Kamehameha. Kalanikupule killed Brown and abducted the remainder of his crew, but the British seamen were able to regain control and unceremoniously shipped Kalanikupule and his followers ashore in canoes.

Recognizing his enemy's vulnerability, Kamehameha used his strong army and his fleet of canoes and small ships to liberate Maui and Molaka'i from Kalanikupule's control. Kamehameha's next target was O'ahu. As he prepared for war, one of his former allies, a chief named Kaiana, turned on him and joined forces with Kalanikupule. Nevertheless, Kamehameha's warriors overran O'ahu, killing both rival chiefs. Kamehameha could now lay claim to the rich farmland and fishponds of O'ahu, which would help support his final assault on Kaua'i.

By mid-1796, Kamehameha's English carpenters had built a forty-ton ship for him at Honolulu, and once again he equipped his warriors for battle and advanced on Kaua'i. However bad weather forced him to give up his plans for invasion. Meanwhile yet another challenger — Namakeha, Kaiana's brother — led a bloody revolt on Hawai'i, depopulating the area and forcing Kamehameha to return to Hawai'i to crush the uprising. Kamehameha used the next few years of peace to build a great armada of new war canoes and schooners armed with cannons; he also equipped his well-trained soldiers with muskets. He sailed this armada to Maui where he spent the next year in psychological warfare, sending threats to Ka'umu'ali'i, Kaua'i's ruler. This proved unsuccessful, so early in 1804 Kamehameha moved his fleet to O'ahu and prepared for combat. There his preparations for war were swiftly undone by an epidemic, perhaps cholera or typhoid fever, that killed many of his men.

For several more years he remained at O'ahu, recovering from this defeat and, perhaps, pondering conquest of Kaua'i. Expecting an attack from Kamehameha, Ka'umu'ali'i sought the help of a Russian agent, Dr. Georg Schaffer, in building a fort at the mouth of the Waimea River and exchanged Kaua'i's sandalwood for guns. However, the anticipated battle never came because an American trader convinced Kamehameha to reach a compromise with Ka'umu'ali'i. Kamehameha was acknowledged as sovereign while Ka'umu'ali'i continued to rule Kaua'i, with his son as hostage in Honolulu.

After nine years at O'ahu, Kamehameha made a lengthy tour of his kingdom and finally settled at Kailua-Kona, where he lived for the next seven years. His rise to power had been based on invasion, on the use of superior force, and upon political machinations. His successful conquests, fueled by "compelling forces operating within Hawaiian society," were also influenced by foreign interests represented by men like Captain Vancouver.

3. Changes in Land Tenure, Government, and Hierarchal Structure

(a) Land Tenure

Upon unification of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1810, Kamehameha set about to consolidate his power base and instituted a number of changes in government, land tenure, and the hierarchal structure of society. This new government served Kamehameha's political needs and accommodated the economic demands of Western traders. According to one author, Kamehameha's government drew upon the best of the old ways while "incorporating novelty without letting it become heresy or anarchy."

Kamehameha used several different methods to disenfranchise his enemies. He ordered the houses of defeated chiefs burned and replaced rivals with those he trusted. For example, when forced to leave O'ahu and return to Hawai'i to put down a revolt, he left O'ahu in the charge of his own men rather than in the hands of local chiefs. His advisors were chosen for their loyalty to him as well as for their skills. Sahlins and Barrère suggest that the Hawaiian kings "looked with jealousy on any chief who had a wife of as high birth as his own." For this reason, all five of Kamehameha's wives were of high rank. By choosing these women, he eliminated the possibility of competition on the basis of rank after his death.

Political unification of the islands allowed Kamehameha to reorganize landholdings and paved the way for later changes in land tenure. Recognizing that control over resources was a major source of power, he began to make fundamental changes in the land redistribution patterns. Levin notes that "prior to Kamehameha's unification, the pattern of redistribution was to give sections of contiguous lands to relatives and retainers in traditionally held family lands." However Kamehameha broke this pattern. Retaining the choicest parcels of land for himself and his children, he then reapportioned the "smaller tracts of land in different mokus and on different islands to his kinsmen and followers in accordance to their rank and service." In return, they

were to render public service in war or peace, and in raising a revenue. These let out large portions of their divisions to their favorites or dependents, who were in like manner to render their service, and bring the rent; and these employed cultivators on shares, who lived on the products which they divided, or shared with their landlord, rendering service when required, so long as they chose to occupy the land.

Often this re-distribution of lands was "carried out with great severity." As Kamehameha's enemies were dispossessed of their lands, they lost the cadre of commoners who had provided their economic support and their political power. The ali'i who had formerly held tenure and administrative rights over large sections of land now found themselves without any responsibility for administration. Thus

this new pattern of land redistribution entailed a differentiation between land tenure and administrative duties and a concomitant change in the administrative organization.

In other words, the ali'i were separated from "their traditional source of power" and lost control over large contiguous sections of land and over the maka'ainana, whom they "viewed as their junior kinsmen."

Kamehameha required his most influential rivals to dwell near him and to travel with him, making it easy to observe and thwart any scheming. He scattered the friendly chiefs' landholdings over several islands. These actions kept the ali'i away from their own lands where they could amass men and resources to overthrow Kamehameha. Townsend suggested that the king also made it a policy to change his residence occasionally, "for where he is known he will be popular." Because he was the kingdom's sole ruler, the local chiefs also lost much of their former autonomy in decision-making, and Kamehameha's decisions became the law by which people were governed.

These changes helped break down traditional kinship ties between the ali'i and the maka'ainana, leading to a sense of alienation and loss of the feeling of mutual obligation. As a result, the maka'ainana could be exploited through excessive taxation and, later, as labor for the sandalwood industry. "This marked a beginning of a shift in the conception of social stratification based on kinship to one which was less particularistic."

(b) Government Structure

Kamehameha added several new levels of government within the system. As an example, he chose for his advisors five Hawaiian chiefs, who served as a "council of state" whom he consulted on important matters. As these chiefs died, their sons replaced them, but their influence grew less as Kamehameha gradually assumed more power. The king chose as an executive officer a young Hawaiian chief named Kalanimoku (or, as he later chose to call himself, William Pitt). Pitt acted as treasurer, prime minister, and advisor to the king.

Kamehameha also appointed governors "of proven loyalty and executive ability" for each island. This action was in accord with the past Hawaiian tradition of installation of a governor or viceroy to rule newly acquired territory. However, because of the new type of land redistribution, the governor was "in effect merely an administrator" whose major responsibility was tax collection. At least two of these governors — Isaac Davis and John Young — were foreigners. They reported directly to Kamehameha and managed affairs in his absence. They apprised him of unrest anywhere in his kingdom and informed the chiefs of Kamehameha's wishes. Appointment of a governor for each island removed the autonomy of the individual chiefs, helped unify commerce and communication, and protected Kamehameha's own interests.

Kamehameha promoted unity among the islands by strongly encouraging traditional religious practices like the yearly Makahiki feasts and the construction of heiau. He used the kapu system as a religious framework to maintain control over his subjects and as a means of controlling production and distribution of goods, including trade with foreigners.

Kamehameha continued to collect taxes on a regular basis. Annual taxes were assessed by the king's tax agents and at first remained fairly stable from year to year. There were also other common rules that required presents to the king, especially when he was travelling. The individual chiefs who were given land now owed Kamehameha their political allegiance and had to share with him the products and services they acquired from the commoners who farmed the lands. As foreign trade and influence increased, so did the taxes, especially the odious request to cut sandalwood. Sometimes the lesser chiefs would tax the people "to a very considerable extent in the name of the king, but without his sanction."

Money from yearly tribute was used to promote increasingly lucrative trade with foreigners, which resulted in a number of new jobs, such as washing clothes for the sailors. Kamehameha levied duties on these new businesses and also taxed the commerce between the Hawaiian women and the sailors. In 1818 he established high harbor and pilot fees.

4. Foreign Relations

As described earlier, after Cook's voyages, a number of different nations recognized the desirability of utilizing the Sandwich Islands as a major port on their trading routes. The Russians, Spanish, British, and Americans all joined in the lucrative fur trade with Canton, using the islands as a refreshment stop and as a place to obtain a source of labor. At first, foreign traders never knew what to expect when they dropped anchor at one of the islands. Some local chiefs had continued to attack shore parties or rob ships; others were exceedingly hospitable and helpful to their guests. Some of the captains circumvented this situation by using foreigners living on the islands as middlemen to arrange for safe transport of water and supplies out to the ships so the seamen did not have to go ashore.

As Kamehameha formalized relationships with foreigners and skillfully encouraged their assistance and trade, he made the process much safer. He was also able to control trade while avoiding foreign political entanglements or alliances. He did, however, build a special relationship with Great Britain during the early 1800s, partly through his policy of "cession." Great Britain never took advantage of this relationship, however, perhaps because of the distances involved or because of her preoccupation with other affairs, such as the War of 1812.

Kamehameha was a consummate politician. Under his rule, the "position of the Hawaiian kingdom in the world political system was managed with considerable skill." He had to deal with the Americans, the English, and the Russians who all sought to colonize the islands, or at least to include them as a protectorate. The English looked to the Northwest and the Pacific to supply new raw materials and markets for their expanding economy, while the Spanish had designs upon rich new trading resources. Under the auspices of the Russian American Company, Dr. Georg Anton Schaffer attempted to gain Kamehameha's favor while involving King Ka'umu'ali'i of Kaua'i in a treasonous plot against Kamehameha. Schaffer erected a fort at Waimea, Kaua'i, and a warehouse at Honolulu. Eventually Schaffer's efforts to take over the islands for Russia were thwarted, and peaceable visits by two other Russians, Otto von Kotzebue and Vasilii Golovnin, helped repair the diplomatic damage.

Kamehameha welcomed productive foreign immigrants, perhaps offering them a gift of land or wives. However, he also encouraged sailing ship captains to recruit from among the wastrels that had jumped ship or had left penal colonies and were now squatters in the islands.

5. New Era in Hawaiian Commerce

a) Honolulu Becomes a Major Port

As mentioned previously, the harbor at Honolulu ("Fair Haven") was discovered in 1792 or 1793 by the English captain and merchant William Brown. A gun seller and fur trader, Brown had made several previous trips to the islands before locating this spot. Although at the time it was not well populated or favored by the chiefs, the Honolulu area had an excellent natural harbor, a navigable channel through the reef, and deep protected waters close to shore. Many mariners considered Honolulu harbor superior to those on the other islands. Also, by heading directly into O'ahu, traders could avoid the treacherous calms near the southern point of Hawai'i, thought by early navigators to be caused by the heights of Mauna Loa. Envisioning a prosperous future for the port, Brown, as noted earlier, quickly made an agreement with Kahekili whereby the island of O'ahu was "ceded" to him in return for the promise of military assistance. However, Brown was killed before he was able to realize his dreams for Fair Haven.

After Brown's death, Kamehameha's presence on O'ahu meant that more and more of the traders called there. As its importance as a trade center grew, Honolulu became a gathering place and residence for foreign sailors, traders, and merchants. By 1809 the village of Honolulu had grown to several hundred houses. The king's house, surrounded by a palisade, displayed the British colors and was arrayed with a battery of sixteen carriage guns belonging to his ship. The English and American ships in Honolulu harbor were flanked by those from Spain, France, and Russia. At first Kamehameha supervised trade from his home at the native village of Waikiki, but he moved to Honolulu about 1810. Kuykendall suggests that this move may have been prompted by "the foreigners' rendezvous at Honolulu." Thus, foreign trade was one of the major influences in the rise of Honolulu at the expense of other island harbors.

Also, by the turn of the century native goods and produce had become quite expensive on Hawai'i, where ongoing warfare and large numbers of traders seeking goods had raised prices. Traders were advised to go to islands like O'ahu for better bargains. By this time O'ahu also had more land under cultivation than did other islands and could provide a more ready supply of foodstuffs. Equally important, good water was available at Honolulu, whereas at ports like Kealakekua it had to be transported for some distance.

When the French corvette Uranie visited O'ahu in 1819, the captain's wife found O'ahu "less wild" than the other islands, surely a comment on the more Europeanized nature of this new port. Kamehameha encouraged a polyglot collection of traders and even built houses for some of the ship's captains who called regularly at the islands.

As more ships called at Honolulu, the number of service industries increased to meet demand. All along the shore developments arose, including a ropewalk, the king's storehouse, and sheds for blacksmithing and shipbuilding, many of these industries run by native Hawaiians. Repairs to the ships could more easily be accomplished at Honolulu than anywhere elsewhere in the islands.

b) Sandalwood Trade

Although salt was an early island export, sandalwood was the first major item of external trade. At first the islands were viewed only as a place to rest and provision ships, but soon traders recognized that an important natural resource — sandalwood — was readily available. Several American traders sought sandalwood on the islands in the early 1790s, but Chinese importers rejected the harvest as inferior. By 1805 Hawaiian sandalwood had begun to reach Canton, and by 1809 it was a regular trade commodity The market for furs had begun to change by 1810 — Northwest Coast sea otters were becoming scarce, and their purchase price had increased. Fur traders had had to broaden their purchases to include other animal skins and were forced to "work the year round." At the same time, the glutted Canton market paid lower prices for incoming pelts. These traders discovered that sandalwood was an easy way to rapidly increase their profit with much less work. In 1810 American merchants William H. Davis, Nathan Winship, and Jonathan Winship abandoned their fur trade routes and reached an agreement with Kamehameha for a monopoly on the sandalwood trade in exchange for a quarter of the profits. These merchants took a convoy of sandalwood ships to China in 1812, making a good profit on their sales. However, the War of 1812 quickly ended their enterprise and the agreement with the king. After the war other merchants assumed control of the lucrative sandalwood trade.

After an abortive and costly attempt to enter the sandalwood trade himself, King Kamehameha was content to make it a royal monopoly. He retained control of the sandalwood and the right to be "agent of negotiation . . . when bartering with the traders," but relegated its collection to the ali'i, who were allowed to keep "four parts by weight for every ten collected." Once Kamehameha became aware of the value of the trees to the traders, he handled their harvest in a traditional way. He claimed the trees as his own

by heavy taxation, employed the people much in hunting out the trees, felling them, and cleaning the wood, and bringing down on their backs ship loads of it, from the mountains.

The younger trees were placed under a kapu, to be saved for Kamehameha's grandchildren. He organized the cutting and transport of the trees under his "normal public works format."

The sandalwood trade under Kamehameha had serious repercussions on Hawaiian culture. The income from the sandalwood encouraged the purchase of luxury goods and the transition to a cash economy, and in numerous subtle ways helped to undermine the kapu system. It became the main source of revenue for the Hawaiian chiefs. After the War of 1812, this million-dollar-market allowed the Hawaiians to purchase ships and munitions; the king himself had acquired more than thirty ships by 1819. Kamehameha had clearly established commercial trade and associated business ventures as the best means of obtaining the luxury items and other goods that had become so important to certain segments of Hawaiian society.


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