Europe and the colonial world at the end of the 18th century
17/11/2019| 28/05/2019 | Last update:
Table of Contents
The crisis of the Ancien Régime (the Old Regime) led to the transformation of political, economic and social structures in much of continental Europe and the colonial world. Between the years 1789 and 1849 the liberal revolutions extended throughout the main countries of the continent. The Europe of the late 18th century has little to do with nineteenth-century Europe. These changes brought the continent to the era of capitalism and liberal constitutionalism.
During the Modern age, European monarchies tended to centralize power in a process of state-building in which the goal was to eliminate the ancient feudal serfdom in the hands of the aristocracy. In spite of the strong resistance of the noble estates, monarchic absolutism was the main form of government throughout this period, excepting the cases of England and the Netherlands, where predominant forms of parliamentary system.
Until the liberal revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries, in continental Europe, society was divided among three groups: the clergy, the nobility and the third state (the people). The end of the Ancien Régime (the Old Regime), where the bourgeois revolutions triumphed, meant:
In addition to these political and economic aspects, broad changes occurred also in European societies: demographic growth, thanks to the decline in mortality rates and the increase in life expectancy at birth; changes in relationships between people because of the birth of a modern society; and changes in the technique and the arts.
As we said, in the technological fields too, the advances have been dramatic:
The most important countries in Europe in the late 18th century were: the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire, France, Prussia, Spain and Great Britain. All these states except Great Britain were absolute monarchies.
In Central Europe, Poland was the subject of an exchange between the powers that surrounded it. Three partitions of Poland took place during the 18th Century:
The Russian Empire had positioned itself as the great territorial power of Eastern Europe since the reign of Catherine II, the Great (1762-1796). Russia had expanded to the West thanks to the partition of Poland. Russia needed an outlet to the sea and did so at the expense of the Ottoman Empire.
Heterogeneous, multinational and dispersed state, formed by Slavs, Romanians, Ruthenians. The Austrian Empire was ruled by the Habsburg house. During the reign of Joseph II, commenced in 1765, he tried to modernize the state with a reform program, abolishing the serfdom and the corporations in 1781, giving guarantees to the peasants about the property, eliminating the work provisions among the peasants, establishing the bases of religious tolerance, secular education and the creation of universities. He had to fight wars in his borders due to the Swedish and Turkish invasion attempts. He is considered an enlightened despot.
In 1782, due to the pressures of the nobility, servitude was restored. During his reign there have been a rebellion of the Austrian Netherlands.
Until 1789, the Kingdom of France was an absolute monarchy. Louis XVI reigned since 1774 to 1792. The 1789 Revolution meant a complete dismantling of absolutist vestiges. The First Republic has been set up.
Under the reign of Frederick II the Great (1740-1786), Prussia became a great power. From 1741 it had Silesia (a region of the South-West Poland). Frederick II was a very worshipped king, fond of music, representing the values of the Enlightenment.
Voltaire was hosted by Frederick II in his court. He reformed the army, applied religious tolerance and carried out many reforms enlightened, but the power was still in the hands of an absolute monarch. The nobility continued to display its power in the large territories located to the east of the Elbe River: Prussian nobility was called “Junkers”. Nobility had a very important power within the army and the civil service. In Prussia, servitude was maintained.
The Spanish monarchy in the late 18th century continued to maintain its colonial possessions in America. Its foreign policy was tied to that of France for his ” Family Pacts ” with the French Bourbons. Kings Charles III and Charles IV were Enlightenment rulers. They did not manage to transform the society, since its policy was very limited by the interests of the nobility. The agrarian and fiscal reform was not accepted by the nobility.
Britain was an exception among the rest of European states. Since the revolution of 1688, it has been a parliamentarian monarchy. This meant in practice the setup of an aristocratic monarchy of a parliamentary nature, since the divine right had been abolished.
The sovereign had limited prerogatives: George III (1760-1820) couldn’t without the consent of the Parliament prevent the application of the laws. He could not create and impose taxes or could not keep the permanent army in peacetime. The monarch ruled surrounded by a cabinet and a prime minister. From 1783 settles down like prime minister William Pitt the Younger. The prime minister was chosen in agreement with most of the elective House of Commons.
The English Parliament consisted of two chambers: The House of Lords (nobility) and The House of Commons. The last was elective and formed by MPs from England, Wales and Scotland. It worked with a restricted electoral system, susceptible to all kinds of corruption. Great Britain was a great commercial and maritime power, with interests opposed with France. It counted on the American colonies until 1776 and India.
Country without a monarchy, constituted by a confederation of 7 provinces, among which, Holland was the most populated. It had a central government body in the city of The Hague, called “States General” composed by a bicameral Parliament and led by a Stadtholder. The position of the Statholder was a military title awarded traditionally to the princes of the House of Orange. From 1751 to 1795 it has been William V. The war against England between the years 1780-1784 and the French Revolution of 1789 forced him to leave Holland and take refuge in England.
At the end of the 18th century, the United Provinces of Holland were in a situation of decline, since cities like Amsterdam had lost importance as a commercial hub. In the late 18th century, the commercial bourgeois class mobilized and created a protest movement called “Patriotic Movement”, which claimed the democratization of political structures. He demanded the limitation of the power of the Stadtholder and, on the other hand, the establishment of a Unitary Republic in Holland. The “Patriotic Movement” was created in 1780 and dissolved in 1787, when the intervention of Prussian army was produced to choke the protests in the Netherlands. The bourgeoisie that was part of the movement was forced to the exile.
“Patriots” were not defenders of a national cause, but it was the name that was given to any movement that was progressive. During the French Revolution the patriots were those in favor of the Revolution.
Switzerland was a confederation formed by 13 cantons, excepting the Republic of Geneva. The Confederation was governed by the aristocracy and it counted on a little unitary consciousness, motivated by the religious and linguistic differences. Its economic and military power was scarce, and many Swiss served in foreign armies. Switzerland was a very important strategic enclave, falling under the Napoleon’s rule.
Switzerland presented a form of organization in cities-state, in the same way that Geneva, Venice and Genoa (these cities-state showed signs of decline). They were oligarchic republics, where power was exercised by a small aristocratic nucleus.
Italy at the end of the 18th century was only a geographical unit divided between 12 states: Kingdom of Naples, Kingdom of Sicily, (unified by the Congress of Vienna in 1816 as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with King Ferdinand I, son of Charles III of Spain, Spain), Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (reign for the Savoy), Republic of Venice, Papal States, Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Republic of Genoa.
The House of the Habsburg had a great influence on Northern Italy, as it controlled the territories of Lombardy and the Duchy of Milan and Mantua. The Duchies of Modena and Reggio were ruled by relatives of the Habsburg House.
Germany was fragmented in more than 350 states of a great diversity of size and importance. Many of these states were included within the Confederation of the Holy Roman Empire, a medieval-led organization led by Austria, which had the title of Emperor. Each state of this confederation had its own policy. This made it enormously difficult for German territories to assume a common national sentiment that went beyond the Germanic cultural sentiment.
Northern and Western Europe presents major technological and economic advances than Southern and Eastern Europe. In Western Europe there is a less weight of feudal relations and greater development of the bourgeoisie. In the East there are large areas where feudal structures are still dominating society: Agrarian bond relationships still exist, and the bourgeoisie has little impact. In the Russian Empire relations of servitude existed until 1861.
Britain was a maritime commercial power: in the late 18th century, it started a dramatic agricultural and industrial improvements, as well as great social changes. There is a proletarianization of the agricultural peasantry, a growth of the urban population and a development of the bourgeoisie and the creation of a wealthy class.
Europe at the end of the 18th century cannot be understood without realizing that:
In some English counties and in the United Provinces (Holland and Zealand) there was more advanced agriculture than in other European territories. In these territories a change in the system of crops began, with the elimination of the fallow land.
In England with the Enclosure process, a triennial culture system is developed without fallow. New fodder plants are introduced: that allowed the mixed exploitation of the land and the livestock cabin is increased. It produced a sustainable economic growth that allows increasing yields, obtaining higher products per hectare. It is a diversified and intensive agriculture.
In Flanders there was also an advanced agriculture, such as that dedicated to the cultivation of linen for textile exploitation (fiber was extracted). In the Po river, Italy, rice was cultivated due to the great availability of water.
Two areas with different agrarian structures are outlined, clearly differentiated:
There was yet serfdom relations in Eastern Europe. The peasants (serfs) lived tied to the birthplace. They could only leave their lands with the permission of the lord. They needed a safe-conduct. The servants paid the man several rights. They had to work for the owners for free, for a varied time.
In the Russian Empire, among 38 million inhabitants, there were about 36 million peasants. Just under the half were servants. In Austria, servants were the Slavic peasants (Czechs and Slovaks, they were called “robots”). In Eastern Prussia there were also servants. The fundamental purpose of the system was to guarantee the regular obtaining of free work.
In Western Europe, in the 18th century there were peasants not subject to serfdom but feudal lordship (subject to the payment of censuses). It was a duty of the peasants to freely dispose of part of the production (censuses in money and in species). Also, tithing was paid to the Church.
Seigniorial monopolies still existed: payment of censuses, feudal rent that came to represent the direct recognition of the landlords’ rights: it could be money or in species. What the landlord demanded from the tenant was that he paid him a portion of the crop. One third of the harvest was required.
The average term was ½ part, 8.3%. Payment of the tithes : it was always paid in species. Obligation to give the Church 10% of the harvest. They were perceived by bishoprics and powerful religious communities. The most frequent was that the preceptors of the tithes did nothing to keep the parishes. The rural parishes were often to be sustained by the peasants themselves.
The seigniorial monopolies, “banalités“, are related to the mill, the press for wine, the mill for oil and the oven to cook bread. The peasants were forced to use these facilities: they had to pay part of their production to the monopoly.
These taxes change dramatically throughout Europe. It is due to the historical circumstances that have led the owners to change the taxes to be able to take everything.
8.33% (census) + 10% (tithes) = 18.33% + 25% (it had to be saved 25% for the following year) = 43.33%. The farmer only had the remaining 55% of the crop left. From here comes the cereal to trade.
These seigniorial burdens are going to grow over time. The increase of the population in the cities provoked a strong demand for agricultural products. Great food demand. The prices rose, so the landlords reacted trying to make the most of their statutory rights. They demand the payment of their censuses in species.
In 1800, the most populated territory was Russia (37.5 million inhabitants), followed by France (29.1 million people) and the Italic peninsula (17.2 million people). States with fewer inhabitants were: The Kingdom of Denmark (0.9 million), Scotland (1.6 million), Netherlands (2.1 million), Sweden and Portugal.
The general increase of the population was due to the maintenance of birth rates and the reduction in mortality rates. The demographic transition occurred, called “Demographic Revolution.” Rupture of the old demographic cycle was due because of wars, epidemics and subsistence crises.
Causes of the decrease in mortality have been:
The largest urban concentration was in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. This process of urbanization in Holland and Zealand came from earlier times. In the 18th century it is already well-established. They emphasize the cities of the South-West dedicated to the colonial commerce. Importance of the Dutch East India Company. Rotterdam, Amsterdam and The Hague, were a crop and industrialized area.
Relative importance of cities in England and Wales. In Scotland it is also important. Process that is developed by the end of the XVIII, related to the rise of the manufacturing production and the colonial commerce. In 1801, Ireland joined Great Britain and became known as the United Kingdom.
France was still a rural state: in 1800, only 6.7% resided in cities. The peasant population will play a key role in the French Revolution.
The European economy was still agrarian. Most of the population resided in the country. In the centre of Europe, Hungary, had a very low percentage of urban population.
In the 18th century, the foundations for the great European expansion around the world were being established. In the 1700s the Europeans colonized territories of Africa, New Zealand, Australia… The European powers carried out the destruction of the towns that conquered. Europeans realized “biological imperialism“, which was to transform the natural environment.
Europeans began the expansion of Europe by the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), it was here where the largest white population in the country settled. What was their goal? The slave trade: millions of Africans were brought to the American plantations.
French and Portuguese also had colonial settlements: France in Senegal and Gambia and Portugal in Angola and Mozambique. In Oceania, Europeans realize the total discovery of the continent in the 18th century. Explorers such as James Cook, allowed southern islands to be placed on the map and to clearly define the western coast of the Pacific Ocean. In Oceania, British possessions have been established within Australia.
These trips were not only used to elaborate the maps, but they also managed to change the vision of nature and human beings, thanks to the contributions of the scientists who travelled to these areas. Scientists returned with drawings, herbs, minerals… At the end of the 17th century, 10,000 different plants were known. In the 18th century. More than 50,000 plants had been catalogued. Darwin’s journey served to prove that the species are not immutable, included in the 1859 work The Origin of Species.
150 years passed between the establishment of the first English settlements on the east coast of North America in 1625 and their independence in 1775. That lapse of time meant the transformation of the territory into the most important English colonial dominion of the time and in the major White population concentration outside Europe.
The English territorial expansion in North America was carried out thanks to:
In 1775 some 2.5 million people inhabited the 13 English colonies of which half a million were slaves. The colonies were essentially rural. 90% of the population was engaged in agricultural activities. The colonies showed great differences among themselves, due to the different productive specializations and the climatic conditions:
The independence of the colonies have been caused by fiscal and commercial reasons, although the specialists point out that the uprising was the result of the great divergence between the demands of an expanding colonial society for greater economic and political autonomy and the new application of English policies on colonies.
Why did Britain want to impose new fiscal demands on its colonies? The Metropolis will be heavily indebted for the Seven Years’ War. England had borrowed to pay the war and to guarantee the security in the colonies, since it had to repress the riots with the Indians and the economic cost of all this was very high. England intended that colonies paid a portion of the loan: the Parliament agreed that a solution could consist in the application of new taxes to the colonies.
The thirteen colonies had a very similar institutional organization: they consisted of a governor and an elective assembly (masculine suffrage only). Among the functions of the assembly there was that to approve the taxes that the American colonists had to pay. The settlers were not willing to allow the application of new taxes without prior approval of their assemblies.
Between 1763 and 1775 the British Parliament promulgated measures to reduce the expenses in the colonies. In 1763, settlers were forbidden from populating the territories located to the west of Appalachian: the aim of this measure was to avoid conflicts between colonists and indigenous peoples.
Taxes levied on consumption:
These measures were totally new, and they were a direct taxation by the Metropolis. It also supposed to modify the traditional customs of the American colonies. The colonies of the North were the most affected being the poorest : these constituted a protest movement as of 1765 when nine colonies participated in the Stamp Act Congress, or First Congress of the American Colonies.
The colonies reacted with violence and England made an immediate response: suspending taxes in 1766. The “Declaratory Act” was approved, which gave the king full power to make laws without the consent of the colonies.
In 1770, in a situation of general discontent more and more obvious, the “Bloody Massacre”, or “Boston Massacre“, occurred: it has been bloody clashes between Englishmen and settlers and it ended with the lives of five Bostonians.
In 1773 the British Government, with full power to make laws in the colonies, decided to grant the tea monopoly to the English company “East India Company“, which limited the colonial tea trade. By means of this law, the traffic of colonies happened to be under English control and the colonists were deprived to deal in tea trade. As a result, in 1773 a group of Boston settlers disguised as Indians boarded some boats in the port and threw their burden of protest the new taxes. These facts are known as “The Boston Tea-party“.
In 1774, as resistance action, the thirteen English colonies meet at the First Continental Congress of Philadelphia.
In 1775 during the Second Continental Congress representatives of the various colonies decided to constitute their own army (commanded by George Washington). In 1775 the War of Independence begins and it spread out all over the territory.
On 7 June 1776, the Congress of Philadelphia approved a resolution in favour of independence. The Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson. On July 4th, the Congress adopted the Declaration, and, on the same day, the independence is proclaimed.
In 1781 the British forces presented the surrender and in 1783 the war officially ended with the recognition of the independence of the United States in the Peace of Paris, also known as the Treaties of Versailles. This was the first time that a process of independence of colonies took place. It will be an example to follow. The independence of the United States will have a strong impact in Europe, where absolute monarchies predominate.
Once independence has been declared, based on ideological principles, most colonies, at this moment independent States, was writing their own Constitution, taking as a model the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In these constitutions the following principles are collected:
Freedom of worship was certainly something restrictive. Catholics were far from political places and the monarchists were still outside. To hold certain political positions some oaths were to be made.
For a century, it had been the greatest slave power in the world. It started with half a million slaves in 1770 to reach a peak of about 4 million in 1860. Slavery was fundamentally associated with the production of cotton.
The first years of independence, United States had to consolidate its own debts. They were forced to create a national currency, to organize the new state, considering the complicated federal organization (Constitution of 1787, which contains the guidelines that the new American organization should follow).
The French Revolution must be placed in the European context, because the ideas of the Enlightenment had contributed to erode the structures of the Old Regime. The possibility of a revolution in Europe was blazing, but nobody thought such a political rupture that broke the rules of the established order. People thought of a more peaceful change, like the English Revolution of the 17th century.
The Enlightened set out to produce a “General Revolution in the Spirits“, but not a bloody revolution. They wanted to peacefully Enlightened the monarchs by improving the government and their laws and educating the people. The Revolution broke out in France by surprise. These types of facts cannot be planned nor organized.
How was Louis XVI’s France? In 1789 France had 29 million inhabitants, of which 22 million (75%) were peasants. Paris was the most populated city, with 700,000 inhabitants. France was divided in the three Estates of the realm (nobility, clergy and third state). It was a nation in crisis, debilitated in the second half of the 18th century by the struggles between the monarchy and the parliaments, the courts that sought to control the activities of the government.
Who controlled the parliaments? The parliaments were controlled by an aristocracy of magistrates (nobles). Many of them were ennobled. 13 cities had parliaments in France. These were increasingly controlled by that aristocracy of magistrates, and they tried to obtain the address of the state policy. At this moment, a crisis had been opened between the monarchy and the aristocratic parliamentary nobility.
The Revolution was the product of a series of factors that formed the explosive cocktail of 1789: financial crisis, General States, economic crisis and peasant revolution.
The French monarchy had a huge debt at that stage, aggravated by the wars (the Seven Years War and the involvement in the United States’ War of Independence). The government had to consider some reform to revert the situation:
The ministers who carried out these reforms were: Jacques Necker, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne, and Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon. Notwithstanding, these reforms had been opposed by the nobility. The nobility rebelled: it is the “aristocratic revolt“.
The parliamentary revolt starring the aristocratic nobility of magistrates will lead to the call of the Estates General that had not been convened since 1614. This fact was a political failure of the monarchy. The “Cahiers de doléances“, the notebooks containing the request of each Estate, have been ordered by the King at the call of the Estates General. But on June 17, 1789, the Third State became the National Assembly, based on the “Jeu de Paume Oath“, on June 20, 1789.
Official session of the National Assembly on June 23, 1789. The monarch makes some concessions: which is not acceptable by him is the separation of the three states.
The revolution exploded in Paris for several factors:
All this provoked that the 14 of July 1789 took place the Storming of the Bastille.
Bad harvests and feudal burdens caused, in the summer of 1789, a widespread revolt in the rural world, known as “Great fear“, between July 20 and August 6, 1789. It ends with some concessions: “The decrees of August“. On July 13, 1788 a great hailstorm occurred, and it shattered crops in the country. In 1789 (June-July), not having the harvests of the previous year it was necessary to wait until the autumn to be able to have new crops.
Historian George Rudé explains: “In normal times, non-specialized Paris workers used 50% of their income to buy bread. In the spring of 1789 because of the increase in the price of cereals, they allocated 88% of their income for the purchase of bread“.
Decrees of August: they are the response of the National Constituent Assembly to the revolutionary climate that spread all over France. They established:
These decrees represent the beginning of the end of feudalism in France.
During this period the National Constituent Assembly undertook major reforms. It began with the approval of the first Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. The “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” was also approved, which in 1790 established that all the members of the Church became officials of the state, and they should have been paid a salary if they swore allegiance to France. Pope Pius VI condemned this constitution in 1791.
The most important project of the Assembly had been the approval of the Constitution of 1791. During this period, the first clashes between the two revolutionary parties, Girondins and Jacobins, began, mainly about how the Revolution must be developed.
In 1792 the declaration of war of revolutionary France against the aristocratic Europe took place. In September 1792 “massacres” take place against the prisoners of Paris, considered enemies of the Revolution. On September 21, the constitutional monarchy ends, due to the failure to achieve a peaceful compromise between the discontented sector of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.
In January 1793 the execution of Louis XVI takes place. This will have been a major event for the rest of Europe. In February of the same year, France declared the war to Great Britain and Holland. In March 1793 took place the civil war of the Vendee, caused by the economic crisis and the French military defeat in Holland.
The Civil War of the Vendee (French region of Brittany) was a war that expressed the discontent of the peasantry for the course taken by the Revolution. In December 1793 the war finalized. Outbreak of an economic crisis caused by a series of riots of subsistence in Paris.
In May 1793 the party of the “Mountain” took the control of the Legislative Assembly and prohibits the entrance to the Girondins. Between May 31 and June 2, 1793, the “revolutionary days“, the “journées“, took place: the 27 Girondins MPs, among them Jacques Pierre Brissot, a leader who was opposed to Robespierre, were arrested.
On June 24, 1793 a new Constitution is voted. In July of the same year Robespierre enters the Committee of Public Safety, responsible for the internal and external affairs of the Republic. At this time, the Republic had defended needs and had to apply an economy of war, with a strong interventionism in production and trade.
On September 4 and 5, 1793, the popular agitation of the “sans-coulottes“, popular proletarian movement in Paris, break out. On September 29, the “terror regimen ” was set up, and during 10 months the revolutionary government imposed its authority.
It is necessary to have presents in the situation of France from 1792-94: the war (it is necessary to provide and pay the troops) and the popular pressure (we must alleviate the urban appetite). That is why a system of repressive and defensive exception was created. Terror and targeted economy come together to create a state of emergency. In July 1794 it is the fall and execution of Robespierre and it is the end of the revolutionary government.
The Thermidorians are the successors of the Robespierrists. They have been supported by the monarchic constitutional movements that wanted the suppression of the Republic and to return to the Constitution of 1791, and by the Girondins.
This period meant the end of Jacobinism and the liquidation of the revolutionary regime and its popular base. Establishment of a moderate bourgeois Republic. The Thermidorians proposed to dejacobinize France. The end of the revolutionary terror will be replaced by the “white terror“, nothing different from the adoption of police measures adopted by the Convention to get revenge of the Jacobins.
The period of the Thermidor Convention ends with the royalist insurrection of the of Vendemiaire 13th, on October 5, 1795, in which General Bonaparte played a very important role in suffocating the uprising.
This period represents a radical break between the two previous stages: the French Directory is a conservative turn in the revolutionary trajectory, even if it did not annul the revolutionary conquests of the two previous stages.
Period of great political instability characterized by several coup d’états:
There are also several expansionist wars:
The period of the Directory ended with the Coup d’état of 18 Brumaire in November 1799 by Napoleon Bonaparte. The Consulate is formed, characterized by strong personal power.
If the moderates tried to end the Revolution, popular sectors appeared, and they increasingly pushed the radical revolution.
The revolutionary decade is going to develop in:
The Revolution will continue its path until 1799, culminating with the Coup d’état of Napoleon. What did the French Revolution have that the others have not?
The French Revolution was the only one that was proposed as a radical transformation of France, Europe and the world: this is because of the universality of revolutionary language. The French movement of 1789 fulfilled two basic conditions:
But the work of the revolution went further and included such important measures as:
The French Revolution have transformed Europe. The continent will be divided between supporters of the revolution and its detractors. At the beginning of the French Revolution, between 1789 and 1791, it did not provoke an opposite reaction of the European powers. At first, it was a factor of weakening of France. It had so very well-received by Austria, Great Britain and Prussia.
When the Revolution turned into more radical and endangered the person of the French monarchs, the confrontation became inevitable. In 1792 the abolition of the monarchy took place. In 1793, the king of France was assassinated. The European states set out to fight against France. They are going to oppose the dissemination of revolutionary principles, through censorship and counter-revolutionary propaganda. They will go back in the field of the reforms that they had undertaken. They face in France militarily.
The French Revolution surpassed the borders of France. It will be the one that began the era of revolutions in Europe since 1795. The proclaimed revolutionary values will face with the question of slavery: only the Revolutionary Government is the one that in February 1794 proclaimed its abolition.
Synthesis of the events of the late 18th century
No results can be shown at this time.
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