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Chapter 50:

  • The Alabama at Singapore
  • -- panic among the enemy's shipping in the China sea -- the multitude flock to see the Alabama -- curious rumor concerning her -- author rides to the country, and Spends a night -- the Chinese in possession of all the business of the place -- Alabama leaves Singapore -- capture of the Martaban, Alias Texan Star -- Alabama touches at Malacca -- capture of the Highlander and Sonora -- Alabama once more in the Indian Ocean.

It turned out as I had conjectured in the last chapter. The Wyoming had been at Singapore on the 1st of December. She had gone thence to the Rhio Strait, where a Dutch settlement had given her a ball, which she had reciprocated. Whilst these Yankee and Dutch rejoicings were going on, the Alabama was crossing the China Sea, from Borneo to Pulo Condore. All traces of the Wyoming had since been lost. She had doubtless filled with coal at Rhio, and gone northward. We had thus a clear sea before us.

A very gratifying spectacle met our eyes at Singapore. There were twenty-two American ships there—large Indiamen—almost all of which were dismantled and laid up! The burning of our first ship in these seas, the Amanda, off the Strait of Sunda, had sent a thrill of terror through all the Yankee shipping, far and near, and it had hastened to port, to get out of harm's way. We had recent news here from all parts of the China seas, by vessels passing constantly through the Strait of Malacca, and touching at Singapore for orders or refreshments. There were two American ships laid up in Bankok, in Siam; one or two at Canton; two or three at Shanghai; [709] one at the Phillippine Islands; and one or two more in Japanese waters. These, besides the twenty-two ships laid up in Singapore, comprised all of the enemy's once numerous Chinese fleet! No ship could get a freight, and the commerce of the enemy was as dead, for the time being, as if every ship belonging to him had been destroyed. We had here the key to the mystery, that the Alabama had encountered no American ship, in the China Sea, since she had burned the Contest. The birds had all taken to cover, and there was no such thing as flushing them. This state of things decided my future course. I had, at first, thought of running up the China Sea, as far as Shanghai, but if there were no more than half a dozen of the enemy's ships to be found in that part of the sea, and these had all fled to neutral ports for protection, cui bono? It would be far better to return to the western hemisphere, where the enemy still had some commerce left. Indeed, my best chance of picking up these very ships, that were now anchored under my guns in Singapore, and disconsolate for want of something to do, would be to waylay them on their homeward voyages. They would not venture out in a close sea like that of China, so long as I remained in it. After I should have departed, and they had recovered somewhat from their panic, they might pick up partial cargoes, at reduced rates, and once more spread their wings for flight.

I had another powerful motive influencing me. My ship was getting very much out of repair. The hard usage to which she had been subjected since she had been commissioned had very much impaired her strength, and so constantly had she been under way, that the attrition of the water had worn the copper on her bottom so thin that it was daily loosening and dropping off in sheets. Her speed had, in consequence, been much diminished. The fire in her furnaces, like that of the fire-worshipping Persian, had never been permitted to go out, except for a few hours at rare intervals, to enable the engineer to clink his bars, and remove the incrustations of salt from the bottoms of his boilers. This constant action of fire and salt had nearly destroyed them. I resolved, therefore, to turn my ship's head westward from Singapore, run up into the Bay of Bengal, along the coast of Hindostan to Bombay, [710] through the Seychelle Islands to the mouth of the Red Sea, thence to the Comoro Islands; from these latter to the Strait of Madagascar, and from the latter Strait to the Cape of Good Hope—thus varying my route back to the Cape.

We were received with great cordiality by the people of Singapore, and, as at the Cape of Good Hope, much curiosity was manifested to see the ship. After she had hauled alongside of the coaling wharf, crowds gathered to look curiously upon her, and compare her appearance with what they had read of her. These crowds were themselves a curiosity to look upon, formed, as they were, of all the nations of the earth, from the remote East and the remote West. Singapore being a free port, and a great centre of trade, there is always a large fleet of shipping anchored in its waters, and its streets and other marts of commerce are constantly thronged with a promiscuous multitude. The canal—there being one leading to the rear of the town—is filled with country boats from the surrounding coasts, laden with the products of the different countries from which they come. There is the pepper-boat from Sumatra, and the coaster of larger size laden with tinore; the spice-boats from the spice islands; boats with tin-ore, hides, and mats from Borneo; boats from Siam, with gums, hides, and cotton; boats from different parts of the Malay peninsula, with canes, gutta-percha, and India-rubber. In the bay are ships from all parts of the East—from China, with silks and teas; from Japan, with lacker-ware, raw silk, and curious manufactures of iron, steel, and paper; from the Phillippine Islands, with sugar, hides, tobacco, and spices. Intermixed with these are the European and American ships, with the products of their various countries. As a consequence, all the races and all the religions of the world were represented in the throngs that crowded the coaling jetty, to look upon the Alabama, wearing the new flag of a new nation, mysterious for its very distance from them. We were to their eastern eyes a curious people of the antipodes.

The physical aspect of the throng was no less curious than its moral. There was the Malay, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Siamese, the Hindoo, the Persian, the wild Tartar, the Bornese, the Sumatran, the Javanese, and even the New Zealander [711] —all dressed, or undressed, as the case might be, in the garb of their respective tribes and countries. Some of the most notable objects among the crowd, were jet-black Africans, with the amplest of petticoat trousers gathered at the knee, sandalled feet, and turbaned heads—the more shining the jet of the complexion, the whiter the turban. The crowd, so far from diminishing, increased daily, so that it was at times difficult to pass into and out of the ship; and it was some time before we could learn what had excited all this curiosity among those simple inhabitants of the isles and continents. Some of these wonder-mongers actually believed, that we kept chained in the hold of the Alabama, several negro giants—they had heard something about the negro and slavery having something to do with the war—whom we armed with immense weapons and let loose, in time of battle, as they were wont to do their elephants! They waited patiently for hours, under their paper umbrellas, hoping to catch a sight of these monsters.

Singapore, which was a fishing village half a century ago, contains a hundred thousand inhabitants, and under the freeport system has become, as before remarked, a great centre of trade. It concentrates nearly all the trade of the southern portion of the China Sea. There are no duties on exports or imports; and the only tonnage due paid by the shipping, is three cents per ton, register, as a lighthouse tax. The currency is dollars and cents; Spanish, Mexican, Peruvian, and Bolivian dollars are current. Great Britain, with an infinite forecaste, not only girdles the seas with her ships, but the land with her trading stations. In her colonization and commerce consists her power. Lop off these, and she would become as insignificant as Holland. And so beneficent is her rule, that she binds her colonies to her with hooks of steel. A senseless party in that country has advocated the liberation of all her colonies. No policy could be more suicidal. Colonization is as much of a necessity for Great Britain as it was for the Grecian States and for Rome, when they became overcrowded with population. Probably, in the order of nature, colonies, as they reach maturity, may be expected to go off to themselves, but for each colony which thus puts on the toga virilis, Great Britain should establish another, if she would preserve her empire, and her importance with the nations of the earth. [712]

The most notable feature about Singapore is its Chinese population. I consider these people, in many respects, the most wonderful people of the earth. They are essentially a people of the arts, and of trade, and in the changing aspect of the world must become much more important than they have hitherto been. It is little more than half a century since Napoleon twitted the English people with being a nation of ‘shop-keepers.’ So rapid have been the changes since, that other nations besides Great Britain are beginning to covet the designation as one of honor. Even military France, the very country which bestowed the epithet in scorn, is herself becoming a nation of mechanics and shop-keepers. Industrial Congresses, and Palaces of Industry attract more attention, in that once martial country, than military reviews, and the marching and countermarching of troops on the Campus Martius. An Emperor of France has bestowed the cordon of the Legion of Honor on a Yankee piano-maker! These are some of the signs of the times in which we live. And they are signs which the wise statesman will not ignore. A nation chooses wisely and well, which prefers the pursuits of peace to those of war; and that nation is to be envied, which is better constituted by the nature of its people for peaceful, than for warlike pursuits. This is eminently the case with the Chinese. Nature has kindly cast them in a mould, gentle and pacific. They are human, and have, therefore, had their wars, but compared with the western nations, their wars have been few. The Taeping rebellion of our day, which has lasted so long, had its origin in the brigandage of an idle and leprous soldiery, who sought to live at ease, at the expense of the honest producer.

It is only lately that we have been able to obtain an interior view of these people. A few years back, and China was a sealed book to us. Our merchants were confined to certain ‘factories’ outside of the walls of Canton, and we were permitted to trade at no other points. But since we have gotten a glimpse of these wonderful people, we have been astonished at the extraordinary productiveness and vitality of Chinese commerce. We have been amazed whilst we have looked upon the wonderful stir and hum and bustle of so immense a hive of human beings, all living and prospering by the mechanic [713] arts and commerce. The Chinaman is born to industry, as naturally as the negro is to sloth. He is the cheapest producer on the face of the earth, because his habits are simple and frugal. The proof of this is, that no western nation can sell its goods in the Chinese market. We are all compelled to purchase whatever we want from them, for cash. When we can work cheaper than the Chinese, we may hope to exchange our manufactured goods with them, but not until then.

Singapore is a miniature Canton, and the visitor, as he passes through its streets, has an excellent opportunity of comparing the industry of the Chinese with that of other nations. As a free port, Singapore is open to immigration from all parts of the earth, on equal terms. There are no jealous laws, guilds, or monopolies, to shackle the limbs, or dampen the energy or enterprise of any one. Free competition is the presiding genius of the place. The climate is healthy—the English call it the Madeira of the East—and the European artisan can labor in it as well as the East Indian or the Chinese. All nations flock hither to trade, as has already been remarked. Now what is the result? Almost all the business of every description is in the hands of the Chinese. Large Chinese houses monopolize the trade, and the Chinese artisan and day-laborer have driven out all others. Ninety thousand of the one hundred thousand of the population are Chinese.

Now that the exclusiveness of China has been broken in upon, and emigration permitted, what a destiny awaits such a people in the workshops and fields of the western world Already they are filling up the States on the Pacific coast, and silently, but surely, possessing themselves of all the avenues of industry in those States, thrusting aside the more expensive European and American laborers. They will cross the Rocky Mountains, and effect, in course of time, a similar revolution in the Western and Southern States. In the latter States their success will be most triumphant; for in these States, where the negro is the chief laborer, the competition will be between frugality, forecast, and industry on the one hand, and wastefulness, indifference to the future, and laziness on the other. The negro must, of necessity, disappear in such a conflict. Cheap labor must and will drive out dear labor. This law is as inexorable [714] as any other of Nature's laws. This is the probable fate, which the Puritan has prepared for his friend the negro, on the American continent. Our system of slavery might have saved his race from destruction—nothing else can.

The Governor of Singapore was a colonel in the British army. He had a small garrison of troops—no more, I believe, than a couple of companies—to police this large population. I sent an officer, as usual, to call on him and acquaint him with my wants and intention as to time of stay. Mr. Beaver, of the firm of Cumming, Beaver & Co., a clever English merchant, came on board, and offered to facilitate us all in his power, in the way of procuring supplies. I accepted his kind offer, and put him in communication with the paymaster, and the next day rode out, and dined, and spent a night with him at his country-seat. He lived in luxurious style, as do most European merchants in the East. The drive out took us through the principal streets of the city, which I found to be laid out and built with great taste—the edifices having a semiEnglish, semi-Oriental air. The houses of the better classes were surrounded by lawns and flower-gardens, and cool verandahs invited to repose. Mr. Beaver's grounds were extensive, and well kept, scarcely so much as a stray leaf being visible on his well mown lawns. His household—the lady was absent in England—was a pattern of neatness and comfort. His bath-rooms, bed-rooms, library, and billiard-room—all showed signs of superintendence and care, there being an air of cleanliness and neatness throughout, which one rarely ever sees in a bachelor establishment. His servants were all Chinese, and males. Chi-hi, and Hu-chin, and the rest of them, ploughed his fields, mowed his hay, stabled his horses, cooked his dinners, waited on his guests, washed his linen, made his beds, and marked his game of billiards; and all at a ridiculously low rate of hire. If there had been a baby to be nursed, it would have been all the same.

On my return to the city, next day, I lunched, by invitation, at the officers' mess. English porter, ale, and cheese, cold meats, and a variety of wines were on the table. An English officer carries his habits all over the world with him, without stopping to consider climates. No wonder that so many of [715] them return from the east with disordered hepatic arrangements.

When I returned to the ship, in the evening, I found that Kell and Galt had made such good use of their time, that everything was on board, and we should be ready for sea on the morrow. Our coaling had occupied us but ten hours— so admirable are the arrangements of the P. and O. Steamship Company, at whose wharf we had coaled. A pilot was engaged, and all the preparations made for an early start. There was nothing more to be done except to arrange a little settlement between the Queen and myself, similar to the one which had taken place at the Cape of Good Hope. As we were obliged to lie alongside of the wharf, for the convenience of coaling, it had been found impossible, in the great press and throng of the people who were still anxious to get a sight of my black giants, to prevent the sailors from having grog smuggled to them. When an old salt once gets a taste of the forbidden nectar, he is gone—he has no more power of resistance than a child. The consequence on the present occasion was, that a number of my fellows ‘left’ on a frolic. We tracked most of them up, during the night, and arrested them—without asking any aid of the police, this time—and brought them on board. One of the boozy fellows dived under the wharf, and played mud-turtle for some time, but we finally fished him out. When we came to call the roll, there were half a dozen still missing. A number of applications had been made to us by sailors who wanted to enlist, but we had hitherto resisted them all. We were full, and desired no more. Now, however, the case was altered, and the applications being renewed after the deserters had run off—for sailors are a sort of Freemasons, and soon learn what is going on among their craft— we permitted half a dozen picked fellows to come on board, to be shipped as soon as we should get out into the Strait.

The next morning, bright and early, the Alabama was under way, steaming through the Strait of Malacca. At halfpast eleven A. M., ‘sail ho!’ was cried from the mast, and about one P. M., we came up with an exceedingly American-looking ship, which, upon being hove to by a gun, hoisted the English colors. Lowering a boat, I sent Master's Mate Fullam, one [716] of the most intelligent of my boarding-officers, and who was himself an Englishman, on board to examine her papers. These were all in due form—were undoubtedly genuine, and had been signed by the proper custom-house officers. The register purported that the stranger was the British ship Martaban, belonging to parties in Maulmain, a rice port in India. Manifest and clearance corresponded with the register; the ship being laden with rice, and having cleared for Singapore —of which port, as the reader sees, she was within a few hours' sail. Thus far, all seemed regular and honest enough, but the ship was American—having been formerly known as the Texan Star—and her transfer to British owners, if made at all, had been made within the last ten days, after the arrival of the Alabama in these seas had become known at Maulmain. Mr. Fullam, regarding these circumstances as at least suspicious, requested the master of the ship to go on board the Alabama with him, that I might have an opportunity of inspecting his papers in person. This the master declined to do. I could not, of course, compel an English master to come on board of me, and so I was obliged to go on board of him— and I may state, by the way, that this was the only ship I ever boarded personally during all my cruises.

I could not but admire the beautiful, ‘bran new’ English flag, as I pulled on board, but, as before remarked, every line of the ship was American—her long, graceful hull, with flaring bow, and rounded stern, taunt masts with sky-sail poles, and square yards for spreading the largest possible quantity of canvas. Passing up the side, I stepped upon deck. Here everything was, if possible, still more American, even to the black, greasy cook, who, with his uncovered woolly head, naked breast, and uprolled sleeves in the broiling sun, was peeling his Irish potatoes for his codfish. I have before remarked upon the national features of ships. These features are as well marked in the interior organism, as in the exterior. The master received me at the gangway, and, after I had paused to take a glance at things on deck, I proceeded with him into his cabin, where his papers were to be examined. His mates were standing about the companion-way, anxious, of course, to know the fate of their ship. If I had had any doubts [717] before, the unmistakable persons of these men would have removed them. In the person of the master, the long, lean, angular-featured, hide-bound, weather-tanned Yankee skipper stood before me. Puritan, May-Flower, Plymouth Rock, were all written upon the well-known features. No amount of English custom-house paper, or sealing-wax could, by any possibility, convert him into that rotund, florid, jocund Briton who personates the English shipmaster. His speech was even more national—taking New England to be the Yankee nation —than his person; and when he opened his mouth, a mere novice might have sworn that he was from the ‘State of Maine’—there, or thereabouts. When he told me that I ‘hadn't-ought-to’ burn his ship, he pronounced the shibboleth which condemned her to the flames.

The shrift was a short one. When the papers were produced, I found among them no bill of sale or other evidence of the transfer of the property—the register of an English ship, as every seaman knows, not being such evidence. His crew list, which had been very neatly prepared, was a mute but powerful witness against him. It was written, throughout, signatures and all in the same hand—the signatures all being as like as two peas. After glancing at the papers, and making these mental observations as I went along, I asked the master a few questions. As well as I recollect, he was from Hallowell, Maine. His ship had been two years in the East Indies, trading from port to port; and, as before remarked, had only been transferred within a few days. The freshly painted assumed name on her stern was scarcely dry. The master had sat with comparative composure during this examination, and questioning, evidently relying with great confidence upon his English flag and papers; but when I turned to him, and told him that I should burn his ship, he sprang from his chair, and said with excited manner and voice—‘You dare not do it, sir; that flag—suiting the action to the word, and pointing with his long, bony finger up the companion-way to the flag flying from his peak—won't stand it!’ ‘Keep cool, captain,’ I replied, ‘the weather is warm, and as for the flag, I shall not ask it whether it will stand it or not—the flag that ought to be at your peak, will have to stand it, though’ In half [718] an hour, or as soon as the crew could pack their duds, and be transferred to the Alabama, the Texan Star-alias the Martaban—was in flames; the beautiful, new English ensign being marked with the day, and latitude and longitude of the capture, and stowed away carefully by the old signal-quartermaster, in the bag containing his Yankee flags.

The cargo was bona fide English property, and if the owner of it, instead of combining with the master of the ship to perpetrate a fraud upon my belligerent rights, had contented himself with putting it on board under the American flag, properly documented as British property, he might have saved it, and along with it, the ship; as, in that case, I should have been obliged to bond her. But when I had stripped off the disguise, and the ship stood forth as American, unfortunately for the owner of the cargo, no document could be presented to show that it was English; for the very attempt to document it would have exposed the fraud. Unfortunate Englishman! He had lost sight of the ‘copy’ he had been used to transcribe at school—‘Honesty is the best policy.’

It was still early in the afternoon when we resumed our course, and gave the ship steam. After a few hours had elapsed, and Captain Pike—for this was the name of the master of the captured ship—had realized that his ship was no more, I sent for him, into my cabin, and directing my clerk to produce writing materials, we proceeded to take his formal deposition; preliminary to which, my clerk administered to him the usual oath. I felt pretty sure now of getting at the truth, for I had resorted to a little arrangement for this purpose quite common in the courts of law—I had released the interest of the witness. As soon, therefore, as the witness was put upon the stand, I said to him:—‘Now, captain, when you and I had that little conversation in your cabin, you had hopes of saving your ship, and, moreover, what you said to me was not under oath. You were, perhaps, only practising a pardonable ruse de guerre. But now the case is altered. Your ship being destroyed, you have no longer any possible interest in misstating the truth. You are, besides, under oath. Be frank; was, or was not, the transfer of your ship a bona fide transaction?’ After a moment's reflection he replied:— [719] ‘I will be frank with you, captain. It was not a bona fide transaction. I was alarmed when I heard of your arrival in the. East Indies, and I resorted to a sham sale in the hope of saving my ship.’ Upon this answer being recorded the court adjourned.

At a late hour in the night, the moon shining quite brightly, we ran in past some islands, and anchored off the little town of Malacca—formerly a Portuguese settlement, but now, like Singapore, in the possession of the English. My object was to land my prisoners, and at early dawn we dispatched them for the shore, with a note to the military commander asking the requisite permission. It was Christmas-day, and as the sun rose, we could see many signs of festive preparation on shore. The little town, with its white houses peeping out of a wilderness of green, was a pretty picture as it was lighted up by the rays of the rising sun. Back of the town, on an isolated hill, stood the lighthouse, whose friendly beacon had guided us into our anchorage over night, and near by was the barrack, from whose flag-staff floated, besides the proud old flag of our fatherland, a number of gay streamers. Our ship in the offing, and our boats in the harbor, created quite a stir in this quiet Malay-English town; and forthwith a couple of boats filled with officers and citizens-ladies included—came off to visit us. It was still very early, and the excitement of the morning's row, and the novelty of the presence of the Alabama seemed greatly to excite our new friends. The males grasped our hands as though they had been our brothers, and the ladies smiled their sweetest smiles —and no one knows how sweet these can be, better than the sailor who has been a long time upon salt water, looking upon nothing but whiskers and mustachios. They were very pressing that we should remain a day, and partake of their Christmas dinner with them. But we excused ourselves, telling them that war knows no holidays. They left us after a short visit, and at half-past 9 A. M., our boats having returned, we were again under steam. Bartelli was seen lugging a basketfull of fine Malacca oranges into the cabin, soon after the return of our boats—a gift from some of our lady friends who had visited us. [720]

I have observed by Mr. Seward's ‘little bill,’ before referred to, that Pike, having been foiled in that game of flags which he had attempted to play with me, has put in his claim, along with other disconsolate Yankees, for the destruction of his ship. When will naughty England pay that little bill?

After a good day's run—during which we overhauled an English bark, from Singapore, for Madras—we anchored at night-fall near Parceelar Hill, in twenty-five fathoms of water. The only Christmas kept by the Alabama was the usual ‘splicing of the main-brace’ by the crew. We were under way again, the next morning at six o'clock; the weather was clear, with a few passing clouds, and the look-out had not been long at the mast-head before he cried ‘sail ho!’ twice, in quick suggestion. Upon being questioned, he reported two large ships at anchor, that looked ‘sort oa Yankee.’ We soon began to raise these ships from the deck, and when we got a good view of them through our powerful glasses, we were of the same opinion with the look-out. They were evidently Yankee. As they were at anchor, and helpless—waiting for a fair wind with which to run out of the Strait—we had nothing to gain by a concealment of our character, and showed them at once the Confederate flag. That flag—beautiful though it was—must have been a terrible wet blanket upon the schemes of these two Yankee skippers. It struck them dumb, for they refused to show me any bunting in return. 1 captured them both, with the ‘flaunting lie’ stowed away snugly in their cabins. They were monster ships, both of them, being eleven or twelve hundred tons burden. In their innocence—supposing the Alabama had gone up the China Sea—they had ventured, whilst lying at Singapore, to take charter-parties for cargoes of rice to be laden at Akyab, for Europe; and were now on their way to Akyab in ballast. They had left Singapore several days before our arrival there, and had been delayed by head-winds.

Both were Massachusetts ships—one the Sonora of Newburyport, and the other, the Highlander of Boston. The master of one of these ships, when he was brought on board, came up to me good-humoredly on the quarter-deck, and offering me his hand, which I accepted, said: ‘Well, Captain Semmes, [721] I have been expecting every day for the last three years, to fall in with you, and here I am at last!’ I told him I was glad he had found me after so long a search. ‘Search!’ said he; ‘it is some such search as the Devil may be supposed to make after holy water. The fact is,’ continued he, ‘I have had constant visions of the Alabama, by night and by day; she has been chasing me in my sleep, and riding me like a night-mare, and now that it is all over, I feel quite relieved.’ I permitted the masters and crews of both these ships to hoist out, and provision their own boats, and depart in them for Singapore. The ships when overhauled were lying just inside of the light-ship, at the western entrance of the Strait of Malacca, and it was only pleasant lake or river sailing to Singapore. Having fired the ships, we steamed out past the lightship, and were once more in the Indian Ocean. We found on board one of the prizes a copy of the Singapore ‘Times,’ of the 9th of December, 1863, from which I give the following extract. At the date of the paper, we were at Pulo Condore, and the Yankee ships were still flocking into Singapore:—

‘From our to-day's shipping-list it will be seen that there are no fewer than seventeen American merchantmen at present in our harbor, and that they include some of the largest ships at present riding there. Their gross tonnage may be roughly set down at 12,000 tons. Some of these have been lying here now for upward of three months, and most of them for at least half that period. And all this, at a time when there is no dulness in the freight market; but, on the contrary, an active demand for tonnage to all parts of the world. It is, indeed, to us, a home picture—the only one we trust to have for many years to come—of the wide-spread evils of war in these modern days. But it is a picture quite unique in its nature; for the nation to which these seventeen fine ships belong has a Navy perhaps second only to that of Great Britain, and the enemy with which she has to cope, is but a schism from herself, possessed of no port that is not blockaded, and owning not more than five or six vessels no the high seas; and yet there is no apathy and nothing to blame on the part of the United States Navy. The tactics with which the Federals have to combat are without precedent, and the means to enable them successfully to do so have not yet been devised.’

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