Lord William Bentinck and Sicily: Building a Nation or an Empire?

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europe was aflame, rent in two by the Napoleonic Wars which had effectively redrawn the map of an entire continent. Kingdoms had fallen; nations had been conquered, vanishing into the great mass of Napoleon’s burgeoning dominion; the old order seemed on the run, and a succession of Coalitions drew up to face the French threat. The location of some of Napoleon’s first campaigns, Italy, remained pivotal throughout the ensuing decades. With its cultural heritage, material wealth and long coastline, Italy represented a valuable prize for both sides. British domination of the Mediterranean, long established, had to be maintained. It was that sea which bore the trading vessels that Nelson devoted so much time to defending; it was both the lifeblood of British trade in Europe and the means by which much British aid made the journey to other Coalition partners. In this calculation, the island of Sicily was a valuable asset. It, like Malta and Gibraltar, could be a valuable base and it could provide several essential ports. To that end Lord William Bentinck, a former governor of Madras, was dispatched as Commander in Chief of British forces in the Mediterranean with a special responsibility for Sicily.

The primary English-language source on the ensuring occupation, which had begun in 1806 with the creation of a British garrison but became truly consequential in 1811 – the year of Bentinck’s arrival – is John Rosselli’s Lord William Bentinck and the British Occupation of Sicily, 1811-1814. It details the course of Bentinck’s time in Sicily, and the ways in which he was drawn deeper into Sicilian politics and government, becoming a veritable dictator, until he finally overstepped his authority and was dismissed by his superiors in London.

Seemingly surmounting the Sicilian political scene were the King and Queen, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina, both of whom had lost control of their former domain of Naples. It had been awarded to Joachim Murat, a French general who had been made King of Naples by Napoleon. Ferdinand and Maria Carolina sometimes appear as little more than caricatures in some of the available sources. The King liked to hunt; and this trait was exaggerated to suggest that he shirked the difficult business of state, leaving it instead to his Queen, who was portrayed as opium-addicted, meddlesome and prone to intrigue. These portrayals have largely survived intact to this day, and the Queen is particularly badly affected by this persistence; her depiction, after all, is not a positive one. But – unfortunately for her – it is one of the strongest and most persistent themes of Bentinck’s private papers, which deserve careful consideration. And the story of the British involvement in Sicily remains both controversial and decidedly pertinent to today’s geopolitical scene.

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Rosselli does seem to have caught the tone of Bentinck’s meetings with the Queen (and one in particular) very well; there is a kind of frenetic energy to proceedings – and the British envoy is subjected to a host of grandiloquent pronouncements from the Queen, who stressed, in Rosselli’s words, that she had ‘always been English in feeling’.

From the impression conveyed by Bentinck’s diary, it really does seem that the Queen was just as frantic and disruptive as it has been suggested – she later tells Bentinck how amusing it would be for her to watch two of her already fractious barons quarrel. Given the turbulent state of Sicilian politics at that time, such sentiment ought to be expected; but it cannot have helped the situation, and the Queen does not come out of this episode favourably.

Similarly, the Queen was apparently also stubborn in her conduct as regards communication with other monarchs; though she had not corresponded, she protests, with the Emperor Napoleon or Murat, she had exchanged letters with some in Naples, her former dominion. After 40 years on the throne, she protested, she must have maintained some ‘connexions’. The point is legitimate, but the intransigence is obvious; many Sicilians – the nobles especially – worried deeply about the revanchist tendencies of the royal family, who obviously and desperately longed to return to Naples. With some justification, it seems, there was a fear that Sicily would be sacrificed in pursuit of that goal; and in any case, the island would lose any prominence it had in the minds of its rulers if they regained their old domain – and few in Sicily looked at the prospect of a return to the status of unimportant backwater kindly.

There was, it seems, a culture of blaming the Queen for any adverse happening or unadvantageous development – by January 1812, for example, it appears to have become such a common refrain that Bentinck could refer to it in brief and write as if the affixing of guilt upon her person was an unremarkable incident: ‘Called upon the [D]uke of Orleans in the Evening. He [said] the H[ereditary] P[rince] had been shy toward him[;] attributed it to the Queen’s influence’.

Meanwhile, it must be noted that the King was as ambiguous as his wife and son. He tried initially, and with apparently sincerity, to abdicate – but when spoken to for long enough his opinions apparently hardened. He declared the kingdom not only his personal property but a gift from god. When he at one stage attempted to resume power, to usurp the system of vicarious rule which had been arranged by Bentinck and others, he had a Te Deum sung in Palermo Cathedral. But soon enough, and in the absence of his wife’s supposed influence, the King sunk back into despairing obscurity with scarcely a whisper of protest, though he still harboured a tremendous resentment for the British influence on his dominion.

The Hereditary Prince, Francis, also presents a complex figure. It is clear – both from Bentinck’s diaries and Rosselli’s writing – that the British general initially held the Hereditary Prince in high regard: if an abdication were to occur, it seems, Bentinck was fundamentally in favour of the Prince taking over the running of his father’s kingdom. He had a sort of mandate (as far as one could exist in a land of hereditary rule) and his character seemed to be a favourable one. As time progressed, however, it became clear to Bentinck that the Prince was still very much the pawn of his parents; his ministers were really their ministers – and in any case, said officials required the King’s tacit approval to exercise any real power. And beyond even this, the Hereditary Prince hid behind Bentinck, requesting, for example, that Notes or declarations which suggested that he act in ways which were contrary to the wishes of his parents be worded especially strongly – all the better to demonstrate his lack of agency and thus responsibility. In the words of Rosselli, the Prince ‘swung to and fro, anxious to please everybody, unable to please anybody, and rightly accused by all of weakness and duplicity’.

There is one aspect of this drama at the royal court which is reflected very strongly in the documents: the spying situation. Put briefly, everyone appeared to be involved in it. The Queen – accused of being a conduit through which information travelled to Murat and other French-affiliated sources – was indeed afflicted by a rash of spies who lurked in her antechamber; Rosselli has strong words reserved for this ‘riffraff’. Yet the English stole her letters, copied them, and used them for dubious purposes of their own. One of the few Englishmen with whom the Queen had a good relationship was himself stealing her correspondence on a very regular basis. In this and other things, then, there is great scope for the suggestion that she was to some degree set up as a kind of monarchic scapegoat for the British.

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There is a sense, too, that Bentinck (at least the side of him gleaned from reading his dairies) was less scheming, and less moralistic, than he is held to be by many. The picture painted by his private papers suggests not that he was a diehard liberal imperialist or a misty-eyed lover of liberty, but that he was preoccupied first and foremost with short-term political considerations. Does this exonerate him of the charge of wanting to discredit the Queen? To an extent it does, but it could also convict him of political ineptitude.

The Sicilian situation was one of making political moves, and instituting political changes, on the basis of expediency. In the early 1800s in Sicily, it seems, there was a move to join the British Empire – or at least to copy many of Britain’s prized institutions in a bid more closely to resemble the great power. But this was not sincere – it did not have the true support of the population – and many of the barons suggested it solely to advance their own cause. There was a suggestion in the 1840s that Sicily should be colonised by the United States of America, then an ascendant power. This was followed by the island’s joining the newly unified Italy in 1860, when the pressure became too strong to ignore. What can be taken from this is the idea that the professed public opinion of Sicily was often influenced more by shallow political considerations than by longer-term ideological consistency. This meta-narrative, however, is less immediately relevant than it might appear. After all, much of what those potentiaries at the head of governments and factions did was also undertaken with little or no thought but to the present. In its trials and challenges, the politicians too found their animating energy.

Those politicians often had a particularly fraught relationship with Bentinck and the British, whose approval and support they almost invariably sought, but whose interests they very rarely shared. One of the most potent tools in Bentinck’s arsenal was the might of British capital. The Sicilian state received a subsidy in gold from the Exchequer, and it was this financial assistance which both propped up the Sicilian government and made it resemble a protectorate of the British Crown.

The finances of Sicily were chaotic, erratically managed and perpetually in peril. Because of the remarkable churn in ministers and an antiquated system of government – both financial and political – the Sicilian state soon became dependent on this subsidy simply to function at all. The threat of withdrawal, therefore, or the possibility that this capital transfer may be decreased in essence or in some way held up, was one of Bentinck’s strongest and most frequently used political tactics. The subsidy was forever under evaluation, with the pen perched precipitously, hovering overhead – and Bentinck was eternally prepared to cut off the flow of capital entirely.

But this situation – one which could be seen to demonstrate the command Britain had and the control the British state could exert over Sicily – is not as black and white as it may initially seem. It is odd – even remarkable – for a nation such as Britain to prop up its de facto protectorate. These circumstances were uncommon – after all, between a great power and a de facto colony the direction of travel for capital is generally away from the lesser power. Yet that is not what happened in Sicily, and the subsidy – though its flow was forever on the verge of being stemmed – was never cut off entirely. Bentinck wielded this financial inducement with the practiced air of a diplomat delivering a none too well concealed threat; and for the most part it worked, providing conscientious ministers with an excuse for their own prudence and scaring more exuberant ones into working as if they had financial acumen or the desire to acquire it.

All of this could be seen to exonerate Bentinck of ineptitude; and the story of his adept interaction with Sicilian politics – and the politicians he grew steadily to disdain – is all the more interesting when considered in relation to one of the most important decisions a nation can make: whether to reform the country’s constitution, the very cornerstone of its government and national identity.

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There is something to be said about Bentinck’s intimacy with the politicians who comprised members of the government but did not constitute a majority of the aristocratic upper classes. It is he, for example, who was approached by ministers regularly and without appointment. They asked whether he had the authority or ability to speak to others in power ‘privately’. (Presumably this denotes an opportunity to influence the individual or their political faction, which shows the essential role Bentinck eventually played in Sicilian politics.) In the narrative of Bentinck’s dairies, this suggestion comes after only a few meetings with his interlocutor, and the British envoy was at that time ‘in no habits of intimacy or intercourse with Cassaro [the intended recipient of Bentinck’s “advice”]’. (The apparent influence afforded to Bentinck is somewhat limited by the question of ‘whether without permission he would like to talk to me’, however. In 1812, long before the creation of a veritable military dictatorship under Bentinck, he had to operate at all times within the existing Sicilian political system.)

Bentinck was also essential (though he was initially unwilling) in the creation of the doomed Sicilian constitution of 1812, which aimed to emulate or appropriate much of the substance of the British constitution. This would have always been a difficult undertaking (not least because the British constitution is idiosyncratic and largely uncodified); but the process was made significantly more difficult by the complex nature of negotiations. Bentinck did not impose his will on the Sicilians – though, in private and after initial scepticism, he thought that an imitation document in the British style would do them good. He did, however, barely interfere as the barons fought among themselves and the Queen connived and intrigued to secure for the King enough power to maintain his status as a serious political actor.

Bentinck did, however, and in spite of his apparent disinterestedness, have a strong sense of British mission as regards Sicily; his diary is largely factual, but he did allow himself the occasional epigram, especially in conversation. Pace Rosselli: ‘He was reported to have said in private that “Bonaparte made Kings, England makes nations”’. After the Constitution was advanced – and 15 ‘Bases’ upon which it might be constructed passed in a hectic single day at the three-tiered legislature – Bentinck was roundly congratulated by many, especially those in Britain who shared his idealistic reforming zeal. Sir Edward Pellew called it ‘a work of Herculean labour … the triumph of humanity and Reason over darkness, cruelty and oppression’. The Bishop of Limerick declared his view: ‘that miserable country will now be made sensible of its good fortune in being placed under the control and protection of the British Government’.

The King was less pleased and, fearing a decline in his own power, the sovereign made a conspicuous effort to return to prominence. The Duke of Orleans described this intervention in the following terms:

The King was at present as it were retired into his citadel from whence he was ready to make a sortie whenever he pleased, waiting for the turn of events and encouraging by his hostile position all those who were unfavourable to the Constitution.

Eventually this interference became even more active; and the King returned to power amid a storm of self-congratulation and overly assured optimism. Having received the King’s reply to an uncommonly aggressive Note, in which he demanded that the monarch take a less active role in politics, Bentinck ‘determined to go personally to the King and see if I could not frighten him’. When Bentinck delivered the required frightening, it seems the King retreated into the realm of blame and self-abnegation. As Rosselli has it, ‘for most of his misfortunes he blamed the Queen’.

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Eventually, with this sort of comment becoming a particularly oft-repeated motif in Sicilian politics, the Queen was dispatched to Austria by the will of virtually every political participant; she would die of a stroke soon after her arrival. With the Queen’s departure removing his most implacable apparent opponent, it might be expected that Bentinck would have had his way from then on; the influence she possessed had been entirely removed from the Sicilian political system, and her husband, the King, tired of his many battles with the strong-willed British general, might be expected to give up. As it was, however, Bentinck was soon to witness the coming apart of the model ‘British constitution’, which he had not initially supported but which had come for some to symbolise his abiding influence on Sicilian governance and society.

There was one thing that Bentinck, and the constitutionalists whose support he had, could not control, however: the plague. It had emerged on the African continent and seemed likely to arrive in Sicily. Most of the cargo transported between the island and the affected areas made the journey in British ships; it was easy, therefore, in Rosselli’s words, to exacerbate tensions and ‘to accuse the British of neglecting quarantine regulations’. Such things stirred up the already febrile Sicilian mob, which had largely been excluded from the stuff of high politics, even though it had eloquent advocates in the popular house of the legislature.

The aristocratic ministers, faced on one side by a revolt of baronial privilege and on the other by a terrifying, almost Jacobin popular movement, were apparently incapable of working together in solidarity. On almost every boat from Italy Bentinck, who was for a short time abroad, would receive letters asking him – begging him – to return and to take control of the situation. Parliament fell, in Rosselli’s reading of the ministerial situation, ‘into a hopeless anarchy’. Worse was to come, and the ministers resigned en masse following food riots and continuing Parliamentary intransigence in July 1813.

Bentinck, who had been commanding troops in Spain (and who still ‘thought of himself as a soldier first and foremost’), was recalled to Sicily by the scope, scale and immediacy of the impending crisis. There he dined with the former ministers of state, some of whom still hoped to be returned to office by force of British arms; perhaps in the mould of, as one put it, ‘the vizier of a Sultan’. This attitude, and an unwillingness or inability to work with the popular faction, led to a Parliamentary defeat of great consequence, in which Bentinck’s constitutionalists – ‘my 53’, those he had personally driven to the Parliament building and in whom he placed a great deal of trust and faith – were defeated by 61 opponents of different political allegiances. At this, the grand hopes of the proponents of the so-called ‘British constitution’ came to nought. It was a seismic moment; the event marked the beginning of a profound change in the way Sicily was governed.

More out of necessity than design, one expects, Bentinck soon took a more personal role in Sicilian politics. The King treated the constitutionalists as Bentinck’s party; and when the King wished to issue a proclamation under the names of the Hereditary Prince and his ministers but all of them backed out, it was issued under Bentinck’s name alone – and it did not even make reference to his courtesy title (‘Captain-General’) in the process. ‘In it he [Bentinck] made himself responsible for the safety and tranquillity of the kingdom until Parliament should meet again, and announced that he would court-martial “Disturbers of the public peace, murderers, and whatever other enemies of the Constitution may oppose the policy of the Government”’. It was a proclamation of the end of Sicily’s constitutional experiment, of the establishment of personal rule. Bentinck had become the dictator of Sicily.

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This was not an entirely new pose, however. Bentinck’s men had already engaged in the stealing and copying of the Queen’s correspondence, which is demonstrated in another letter, this one sent to Bentinck by one of his underlings. ‘My Lord,’ it begins.

With some difficulty I have procured the enclosed letters which I … have the good sense to return as soon as copied. … [P]ray return the letter as soon as possible.

On the wider political scene, however, the change was more pronounced. After the onset of his dictatorship, Rosselli surmises, ‘The constitutionalists themselves were now little more than a set of placeholders kept in power by Bentinck’s will’.

Bentinck’s position as a kind of enlightened autocrat is a particularly interesting one, especially when considered in conjunction with his former allegiances and declared sympathies. That he wanted to abolish both the political power and the economic supremacy of his aristocratic and baronial opponents is a matter of record; yet he was also willing and able dramatically to curtail the freedom of the populace to demonstrate against the upper classes – and this was maintained largely through the implicit and constant threat of British arms. It is certainly possible, even likely, that Bentinck thought that his actions in Sicily were good for the population. He brought both the stability and the relative enlightenment of the British way of doing things; and it must not be forgotten that Britain was to become the last Ancien Régime power standing in the following century.

There is little doubt that Bentinck saw this development in a positive light; as before, he was convinced that British guidance – though it was more hands-on and direct than had been the norm before the constitutional crisis – was, at least fundamentally, a good thing and a positive influence on the Sicilians, of whom his contemporaries in Britain could hardly be more dismissive and scathing. Bentinck meanwhile had his own ‘philosophic dream’, one that would (if implemented) make Sicily ‘after Ireland, the brightest jewel in the British Crown’. (The jewel metaphor, which also found employment in descriptions of British India, would not have been used idly; and Bentinck, who had served as an Indian administrator as governor of Madras and would do so again – even holding the prized office of Governor-General of India – would not have made such suggestions unless he meant them sincerely.)

At the same time Bentinck undertook a kind of royal progress around Sicily and away from the capital. He took in small towns, the open road and the picturesque ruins of Roman civilisation which entranced him. And as well they might: he was, after all, a classically educated member of the gentry. This romantic vision is perhaps best summed up by Bryon, in a poem written at around the same time; the final line of the first stanza, one cannot help thinking, is particularly apt in Bentinck’s case.

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,

Let him combat for that of his neighbours;

Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,

And get knock’d on the head for his labours[.]

He spoke to the locals; learnt more about the country; and formulated his own romantic notions about how to proceed politically. From these travels Bentinck returned ‘convinced of the need to strike at aristocratic “prepotenza” [bullying] in local affairs’; and he also developed further the idea that Sicily should become some sort of British protectorate. His reasons differed from conversation to conversation, letter to letter, but he put it to Castlereagh that, ‘I would have Sicily become not only the model, but the instrument of Italian independence’. This aspiration appears both manufactured and unrealistic in retrospect, but there is also evidence to suggest that Bentinck truly wished to establish a favourable and mutually beneficial relationship between the larger and the smaller power. Rosselli – at least in his first book – agrees with this assessment, stating that ‘Here Bentinck appears to have been perfectly sincere’.

The ‘dream’, however, was not to be; it was simply too idealistic, it could be argued, to succeed in the particular set of geopolitical circumstances which dominated conventional thinking – especially among British ministers in London – at that time. After it aroused opposition from seemingly every corner – included among the general opprobrium were critical responses from British and Sicilian politicians and notables of all stripes – Bentinck both withdrew the substance of his argument and attempted to differentiate it from official British policy. When the British government turned against his suggestions, Bentinck ‘could do no more than hope that Italy might yet contrive her own liberation’. This verdict is a tragic one, but it does contain elements of the positive; after all, the fact that Bentinck’s goal appears to have been Italian liberation – regardless of the mechanism involved – seems to be to his credit (at least to a modern observer). But the facts of the matter are a little less glowing, at least from the perspective of contemporary British statesmen, who still had a ruinously expensive continental war to wage against Napoleon. Bentinck’s apparent idealism had little place in this pan-European strategy, one in which Sicily and its politics seemed frankly peripheral.

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There was another side to Bentinck’s character in this period. And it was not as ineffective and noble as his newfound commitment to Sicilian and Italian liberty. Rosselli crystallises the charge: ‘Power went to Bentinck’s head; there can be little doubt of that’. As Bentinck openly assumed greater political stature in Sicily, it became easier for him to exercise his hitherto restricted powers on the day to day governance of the island. Before he could issue Notes and recommendations, and meet with the relevant authorities in a bid to influence policy; now he could make policy himself. It showed. His actions seemed more and more proconsular in character; and like many proconsuls, he was wont to launch military expeditions, in this case to the Italian mainland, where he landed at Leghorn on March 9, 1814.

The expedition was built upon a solid moral foundation; while a great number of people talked of the desirability and moral superiority of Italian independence and eventual unification, ‘the difference between their pronouncements and Bentinck’s was that Bentinck meant what he said’. But solid moral foundations successful invasions do not make. At least not necessarily.  Sadly – for Bentinck and the Italian patriots – this was one of those instances where the former came to pass.

Bentinck and his expeditionary force declared the resurrection of the Genoese Republic, a long-dormant political entity, in direct contravention of his orders. But they did not matter to him. ‘[B]y this time’, Rosselli writes, ‘Bentinck was far gone in recklessness’. Bentinck had begun an ultimately ill-fated endeavour. As time went on – and as the prospect of genuine success (and political triumph for Bentinck) started to appear more and more remote – his conduct ‘came more and more to look like a desperate gamble’. Castlereagh, ever the frustrated master diplomat, lamented ‘how intolerably prone he [Bentinck] is to Whig revolutions everywhere’. ‘He seems’, the great strategist continued, ‘bent on throwing all Italy loose’.

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That was enough for the politicians in London. Bentinck was recalled and effectively replaced in 1814; he had been disgraced not by his actions – at least not necessarily – but by his superiors. Returning to Sicily – chastened, weakened – Bentinck had to assemble a coalition of the willing to survive the parliamentary session and to guarantee the survival of the constitution. It was not to be an easy task. The constitutionalists – cowed by the changing political winds – soon offered an abrupt accommodation with the King, and he rode back into Palermo in triumph, confident at last in the resumption of his former role. In his letters Bentinck claimed to have greeted this development with pleasure, but that is less believable than his greatly publicised declarations of Sicilian promise and proclamations to the effect that Italy should be free and united; both of these positions were almost explicitly directed against the continuation of Bourbon rule – and certainly Bourbon rule as personified by Ferdinand.

His demotion affected Bentinck very negatively indeed. He had come to wield immense, almost unchallenged power, yet now he was to be shuffled off the board to make way for a new British envoy. ‘[S]hortly before his departure [Bentinck] was seen wandering in dejection through the countryside near Palermo’; he knew that his ‘system’, painfully constructed and laboriously maintained, would not survive his going.

In that assessment Bentinck was entirely accurate. The King showed more cunning and shrewdness than his public image suggested in playing Sicilian political strife to achieve his desired result. The Parliament was dissolved and new elections held. They returned a legislature just as fractious and petty as the one Bentinck had wrestled with and struggled to keep in line. The King then proceeded to allow Sicilian independence and liberty to wither, allowing its political system to tire itself out through the constant internecine struggle. Eventually the war was won; after the defeat of Napoleonic France, Ferdinand sailed to Naples and unified the two kingdoms, making Sicily, according to one historian – and perhaps perversely – ‘a posthumous conquest of Napoleon’.

When Bentinck tried to raise a motion in the House of Commons in defence of Sicilian liberties, he was bitterly criticised by Castlereagh, who suggested that Bentinck had done little more in Sicily than ‘what was necessary for his military occupation of the island’. The motion was defeated, MPs agreeing with Castlereagh that any intervention in Sicilian affairs would be ‘unjustifiable and impractical’. In one sense the foreign secretary was right – it was coherent with his longstanding policy to refrain from interference in the affairs of a smaller power when attempting to establish a kind of European system. But it was not coherent with the moral arithmetic which Bentinck held to be true and believed by the end of his time in Sicily. His system had not survived. What will survive of his tenure in Sicily, however, is his writing – both public and private; some of it, when removed from the tangle of political factions and competing interests at play in Sicily at the at time, is decidedly eloquent in its defence of human freedom. And it is worthy of at least a little immortality on that account alone.

Those times are past when personal attachment to a chief or a family was the greatest incentive to human action. At this time the world is too enlightened not to have discovered that the only security for individual liberty or national greatness is a free Constitution where the interests of the Sovereign and the people are happily blended and identified.

When a great power intervenes in the affairs of a smaller one, its obligation towards that nation does not diminish. As we have perhaps seen in the recent American attempts to disengage in Iraq, such things can have disastrous consequences. When a great power intervenes in the government of a smaller power, its obligation towards that nation can only be strengthened – and this is a pertinent lesson for the statesmen of the present as much as it was for those of the past.

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