Please accept my apologies for the delay. On Friday, the day Episode 23 was supposed to go up, we had a death in our household. No, it was not a person or pet, thank God; it was our refrigerator. Everything else had to be put on hold until the refrigerator was replaced. Then, after that was done, I could finish recording this podcast episode. Today we see the British Empire get involved in Southeast Asia, and learn how they gained control over Malaya, Singapore, and part of Borneo.
(Transcript, added 05/02/2020.)
This episode is dedicated to P and Seona, who recently made donations to support the podcast. Thanks to both of you for allowing the podcast to continue for another month. The website I have chosen to host the files, Blubrry.com, is not free; I have learned from experience that when websites allow free hosting or storage of soundfiles, they tend to go out of business. To give one example, does anybody remember the music site Spiral Frog? And since I do not believe in putting episodes behind paywalls, as some podcasters do, your contribution will benefit all the listeners. As I have said before, thanks for your support.
I also want to apologize for being a day late with this episode. My personal goal is to upload episodes on the 1st and 16th day of each month, except in February, when I’ll upload the second one on the 15th because that month is short. In early June I was called on to give a history presentation at a conference in the real world, so I had to put the podcast on the back burner until that was over. Despite the late start on this episode, I still had a fighting chance of getting it finished on schedule, but then before I was done recording, we had a minor emergency at home; the refrigerator died. It was an eighteen-year-old refrigerator that suddenly stopped working yesterday morning; it gave its life for frozen meats and my wife’s exceptional cooking. If this was winter, we could have taken our time, keeping the refrigerator’s contents outside for a day or two, but with the heat of summer on us, we had to go get a new refrigerator right away, so yesterday I spent my recording time shopping for a new fridge. Finally, I spent today waiting for the new refrigerator to be delivered; I couldn’t go anywhere until it arrived, and had to finish recording and editing this episode around that delivery. By the time you hear this, things should be back to normal in the house, so let’s get started, with no more delays.
Episode 23: British Singapore, Malaya, and Borneo
Greetings, dear listeners! So far in this podcast we have seen the rise of three Western empires, those of Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. We have also seen one of those empires fall, the Portuguese Empire. Now we are going to see a fourth European power, Great Britain, dive into the colonial game. We have already seen the British for a while; the British East India Company was active in Southeast Asia, at least until it switched its focus to India. By 1800 Britain had acquired four outposts in Southeast Asia: Bencoolen, Malacca, Penang Island, and Province Wellesley. Bencoolen was on the west coast of Sumatra, while the others were in the Malacca Strait. In 1762, during the Seven Years War, a British squadron invaded the Philippines, an event we’ll cover in a future episode, and in the last episode, we saw Britain conquer Java in 1811, and hold it for the rest of the Napoleonic Wars. Although Britain started out later than the other Europeans we mentioned, their superior navy allowed them to catch up, and after the Napoleonic Wars the other empires were in ruins, so Britain was the world’s richest, most powerful nation in the nineteenth century. Rule Britannia.
It has been said that, quote: “the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness.” End quote. As a result of the Seven Years War, the British found themselves controlling Canada and the most valuable part of India, Bengal. The conquest of Canada was one of the goals set by William Pitt, who became Britain’s prime minister in the middle of the war, but Britain gained Bengal suddenly, as a result of winning the battle of Plassey in 1757. Bengal had 35 million people and generated an annual revenue of £2 million, about $800 million in today’s US dollars. Acres of farmland were set aside for the production of crops that brought the most profit: tea & cotton for the mother country, and opium for the growing drug traffic with China. The acquisition of income and workers on this scale gave Britain the resources to do what no other European power could accomplish, namely the conquest of the whole Indian subcontinent. They would do this one step at a time, usually in response to threats against what they already had.
Likewise, in the rest of the world, Britain would look to take colonies that would protect their Indian interests, like the Suez Canal. Take a globe of the earth, turn it so that you are looking directly at the Indian Ocean, and from that point of view, almost all the lands you will see were part of the British Empire by the early twentieth century: India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaya, Australia, most of East Africa, South Africa, Egypt, South Yemen, the Maldive Islands, and so forth. In other words, the Indian Ocean had been turned into a British lake. “The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets” was created just to secure its most valued colony.
In Southeast Asia, Britain was now motivated to gain colonies to protect India against any future enemies that might attack from the east. That was why Britain moved against Dutch-ruled Java, when the Netherlands were on Napoleon’s side. In the last episode we met the British governor of Java, Thomas Stamford Raffles, and when his time as governor ended, Raffles hated giving Java back to the Dutch, because his work on the island wasn’t finished. Therefore, after Raffles was transferred to Bencoolen, he looked for another colony that would be a fair replacement for Java, one that would give Britain control over the waters and commerce between India and China. Bencoolen wouldn’t do; we saw previously that Bencoolen had a bad location, so it never amounted to much. Nor could Britain use any Dutch-controlled ports for naval or commercial transportation; the Dutch either banned British ships outright from their ports, or charged high fees. The governor-general of India, Lord Hastings, gave Raffles permission to search for a place to build another trading post, provided he do nothing to offend the Dutch.
In 1819, after visiting two or three places that were unsuitable, Raffles visited Singapore, an island off the southern tip of Malaya, and he decided this was the place. Way back in Episode 11, we saw that Singapore City was founded here in 1299, by the last prince of the Srivijayan empire. But now, 520 years later, there were only about 1,000 inhabitants. Many of the residents were so-called “Sea Gypsies,” tribesmen who preferred living in boats over living on dry land; the rest were a mixture of Malays and Chinese. Most of the island was still untamed jungle and swamp. Even so, Singapore was perfect for what Raffles had in mind. Besides being underpopulated, it had a superb geographic location, and a deep harbor. In addition, fresh water was available, and it had timber for repairing ships. Best of all, the island was not controlled by a strong government. The nearest Malay state, Johore, had a claim to the island, but the throne of Johore had become vacant with the local sultan’s death in 1812. Since then, the sultan’s two sons, Hussein and Abdul Rahman, had claimed the throne, leaving Johore divided and paralyzed. The local chief, Temenggong Abdu’r Rahman, was willing to sell some land for a trading post, but he was a subordinate of Abdul Rahman, and Raffles soon decided he could get a better deal from the other prince, so Raffles helped Hussein become the next sultan. Afterwards Raffles and Hussein signed a treaty that gave him permission to build a British port, in return for a small annual subsidy paid to the sultan.
To make sure that people would come to Singapore, Raffles declared it a free port, where anyone could bring cargoes without paying the duties imposed at Batavia and other Dutch ports. Sure enough, Arab, Malay and Chinese merchants started visiting Singapore immediately. The result was instant success; the trade goods that passed through in the very first year were worth $400,000 Spanish dollars, or $6.4 million in today’s US dollars. Four years later, in 1823, Raffles sailed away to England, and never returned, because he would die in 1826, but already the colony was growing so fast that he could take pride in his accomplishment.
Raffles wasn’t supposed to offend the Dutch, but they got upset anyway, because they had long viewed all of Indonesia and Malaya as belonging to them, and now there was a growing British city in the middle of this area. Tensions rose, until Britain and the Netherlands negotiated, and in 1824 they signed a new treaty. Here the Dutch gave up their claim to Malacca and recognized Britain’s right to Singapore. In return, Britain gave Bencoolen to the Dutch, recognized the Dutch claim to western New Guinea, and declared that everything south of the Malacca Strait was in the Dutch sphere of influence, even if Malaya was no longer part of it. By 1824, Singapore’s population had grown to 10,000, and it had replaced Penang as the busiest port in the Malacca Strait. Before 1824 was over, Britain signed a new treaty with the sultan of Johore, that extended British rule to the rest of the island. There would be a slump when Britain founded another major port in the Far East, Hong Kong, in 1841, but Singapore would recover after the Suez Canal opened, and sea traffic increased everywhere. Then it would go on to enjoy even greater prosperity. So this isn’t the end of the story of Singapore; it’s only the beginning.
Adventures on Borneo
In the last few episodes we saw individual Europeans come to Southeast Asia, and cause big changes because of their presence. Now we are going to meet another one, James Brooke. By far the best source I could find for a biography of Brooke was an article on the website DawlishChronicles.com, so I will start by reading a couple paragraphs from that. Quote:
Born in India in 1803, son of a British judge, Brooke was sent to England at the age of 12 to be educated, a process punctuated by running away from a school he disliked. He returned to India at the age of 16 and was commissioned into the Bengal Army of the British East India Company. (In this period there was no direct British rule, nor was there to be for another thirty years). The First Burmese War broke out in 1824 and Brooke was soon in action with a body of volunteer Indian horsemen he had trained. He was to lead them in a successful charge at the Battle of Rungpore in January 1825 and two days later repeated the exploit. This time however he was shot in the lung. Thrown from his horse, he was left for dead, and only when the battlefield was cleared was he found to be still breathing. He survived, but even after his initial recovery was weak enough to be sent back to Britain to recuperate. His wound was sufficient to justify a pension of £70 per year for life. The next five years, marked by continuing ill health, were spent in England and when he returned to India in 1830 he resigned his commission. Fascinated by South East and East Asia, he sailed on to China – more illness there – and back to England.
Once at home again Brooke began to read widely on the East and to consolidate the negative opinion he had formed of the East India Company (known as “John Company”) and the stranglehold it maintained on commercial activity. He did not share the prejudice of so many of his class against “trade” and he recognised significant opportunities in South East Asia. Drawing on family money, Brooke purchased a “rakish-looking slaver brig,” the 290 tons Findlay, loaded it with trade goods, hired a crew and master and took her to Macao, the Portuguese colony on the China coast. The venture was a financial disaster and Brooke returned home much chastened. He bought a small yacht and sailed it off Britain to increase his knowledge of seamanship – which he should probably have done to start with – and the death of his father in 1835 brought him an inheritance of £30,000, a vast sum at the time. Now 33, Brooke realised that it was now or never if he was to realise his dreams. He bought a 142 ton schooner, the Royalist, and set systematically about learning all he could about Borneo, which he had identified as offering the greatest opportunities. There was a Dutch presence on the south of the island, but the Malay Sultanate of Brunei, on the north coast, had been weakened by corruption and extortion and had only limited control of its territories. Oppression of the Iban tribes by the Malay rulers was extreme and there was widespread resentment. Loose control led to flourishing piracy, the most important participants being “Illanuns” from Mindinao in the Southern Philippines, as well as indigenous groups known as the “Sea Dyaks”. Borneo’s estuaries provided ideal hiding places and the pirates tended to victimise Chinese traders and to avoid European shipping. If trade was sparse then the pirates moved inland, along the rivers, to raid the tribes living there. It might be added that headhunting was a widespread and honoured tradition at this period.
If you haven’t heard of the war between Britain and Burma, don’t worry; we haven’t covered it yet in this podcast, and I am saving it for the next episode. We have seen the Sultanate of Brunei. At its height, around 1500, it claimed rule over all of Borneo and part of the Philippines, including Manila. In practice, though, it only controlled the north coast of Borneo, and when Brooke showed up in 1838, the sultan was facing pirates and a rebellion in the southwest corner of his realm, a part of Borneo called Sarawak. Brooke took command of the local Malay and Chinese troops, donated the light guns carried on his ship, and won a series of victories against the pirates and Sarawak rebels. In 1841, with the help of some units from the British navy, he also restored the sultan to his throne, after some Malay nobles on the side of the rebels tried to depose him.
The grateful sultan rewarded Brooke by crowning him rajah of Sarawak in 1842. Brooke in turn gave the small offshore island of Labuan to Britain in 1846, for use as a coaling station. Soon after that, on another visit to England, Queen Victoria knighted Brooke, and he became known locally as “the White Rajah.” Brooke also acted as the chief judge of the realm, presiding over court sessions in the front room of his house, with his pet orangutan Betsy running around in the background. The strangest case was the trial of a man-eating crocodile, that was accused of killing a court translator who had gotten drunk one night and fell into a river. After hearing the arguments from the prosecution and the defense, Brooke made his verdict and wrote the following in his diary. Quote:
“I decided that he should be instantly killed without honours and he was dispatched accordingly; his head severed from his trunk and the body left exposed as a warning to all the other crocodiles that may inhabit these waters.”
Unfortunately, Sarawak turned out to be unprofitable; Brooke never pulled down more than a few thousand pounds in income from the territory each year. That was barely enough to pay for his family’s upkeep, and the salaries of the administrators he hired; in the best of times, Sarawak broke even, and when it didn’t, Brooke had to make up the difference by paying out of his own pocket. In addition he had to continue fighting pirates for nearly all of the rest of his life. I will read another excerpt from DawlishChronicles.com, which tells about the campaign I found most interesting, because it involved the relatives of two famous authors. Quote:
Much trouble was caused by a trader called Robert Burns, apparently a grandson of the Scottish poet and described as “disreputable”. He was accused not only of stealing women but of encouraging local tribes to kill anybody trying to enter his areas of operations. Expelled from Sarawak, Burns was to turn to arms trading off North Borneo. Here he literally lost his head after his ship was attacked by pirates. Brooke accompanied the Royal Navy commander in the area, Admiral Sir Francis Austen, on an expedition to punish those responsible. This resulted in the unlikely circumstance of the novelist Jane Austen’s brother avenging the grandson of the poet Robert Burns.
James Brooke died in 1868. He never married, and though he admitted having one illegitimate son, he kept the mother’s identity secret. Therefore he named his nephew Charles Johnson as his heir, and Charles changed his last name to Brooke so everyone would know who his uncle was. As the second White Rajah, Charles enjoyed a long reign of forty-nine years, from 1868 to 1917. Whereas James kept himself busy establishing law and order, and protecting the native population from outside exploitation, Charles enlarged the state, strengthened his control over it, and concentrated on infrastructure improvements, like building roads, waterworks, a railway and a hospital.
The third and last White Rajah was a son of Charles, Charles Vyner Brooke. Before taking over he served incognito as a private in England during World War I. As Rajah, he used the growing local rubber and oil industries to finance the modernization of the state, and he protected the indigenous culture by banning Christian missionaries. However, one local custom he did not tolerate was headhunting; that notorious practice was outlawed by all three White Rajahs. In 1941, Vyner accepted a constitution that took away his powers as an absolute ruler, in exchange for £200,000. At the end of the same year, World War II broke out and the Japanese rudely interrupted his reign by invading Borneo. Vyner and his family were visiting Sydney, Australia at the time, so they stayed abroad for the rest of the war.
Vyner returned to Sarawak in April 1946. By this time, after being away for so long, he was broke, so he agreed to hand over Sarawak to the British government, in return for a pension given to him and his family. Thus, Sarawak became a regular British crown colony on July 1, 1946. It was the last colony gained by Britain, at a time when the British were preparing to shed their other colonies, starting with India.
While James Brooke was establishing himself in Sarawak, it wasn’t clear who owned uncivilized North Borneo, or Sabah. This territory was claimed by many but occupied by none. The claimants were the Netherlands, Spain, Britain, Brunei, Sarawak, the sultan of Sulu (in the Philippines), and the United States. The American claim was the doing of Charles Lee Moses, the American Consul General of Brunei. In 1865 Moses obtained a ten-year lease over North Borneo from the sultan of Brunei, and he in turn gave it to three American merchants. The merchants formed the American Trading Company of Borneo, and established a settlement about 60 miles north of Labuan, but it was a failure after that. Thus, in 1876 the American company was sold to Baron Gustav von Overbeck, the Austro-Hungarian consul in Hong Kong. He got a ten-year extension on the lease, and then transferred it to a British agent, Alfred Dent. Dent formed a new company to exploit the territory in 1882, the British North Borneo Company. Then the British government moved in. Using negotiations (and some strategically placed bribes), Britain was able to persuade all other parties to drop their claims by 1888.
The sultan of Brunei saw what was coming next. All he had left were two small tracts of land, surrounded by and divided by Sarawak, so in 1888 he accepted the status of a British protectorate, barely avoiding outright colonization. Although the sultan was allowed to keep his throne, a treaty signed in 1906 formalized the relationship between Brunei and Britain by introducing a British resident. The resident advised the sultan on all foreign matters, and the sultan had to accept this advice.
Taking Malaya, One Piece at a Time
So far in this podcast series we haven’t talked much about the Malay peninsula. For most of history the peninsula was divided into petty states. We did not talk about how they interacted, because none of that mattered to the rest of the world, and recounting such details would probably bore the listeners. The only important nation that ever had its capital on the peninsula was Malacca; we covered the story of Malacca in Episodes 11 and 12. At other times, the nearest empires claimed that Malaya was within their sphere of influence. Srivijaya had once claimed and possibly occupied Malaya, then Majapahit did likewise, and since the sixteenth century, Siam had been working to extend its control over the peninsula.
There were nine Malay sultanates on the peninsula in the nineteenth century. The four in the north, just below Siam’s southern border, were Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu. After several attempts, Siam succeeded in conquering Kedah in 1821, and it reduced the other three to vassal status, forcing them to pay tribute to Bangkok. Below them, the next four states managed to keep their independence, at least until the British got involved here. Their names were Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Selangor. Finally, in the southern end of the peninsula was a single state, Johore. Often Johore was the most influential of the nine sultanates; we saw in previous episodes that the first Moslem missionary to the Philippines came from Johore, and at different times it was allied with Champa, Vietnam’s old rival, and with the Dutch East India Company.
By the 1820s, Britain had four pieces of Malay territory: Penang, Province Wellesley, Malacca, and Singapore. In 1826 these territories were organized into one province, called the Straits Settlements. For a few decades that was all Britain wanted; the British were not interested in the rest of the peninsula. However, they would have to get involved in peninsular affairs eventually, to protect the interests they already had. The first example of this came in 1820, when Britain intervened to prevent Siam from annexing the central state of Perak.
Then huge deposits of tin were discovered in Perak and Selangor, and that changed the economy completely. Ever since then, Malaya, modern Malaysia, has been one of the world’s top tin producers. In 1853 the British government canceled a duty on imported tin, and tin exports to Britain boomed; the British were now willing to buy all the tin that the Malay sultanates would sell to them. Because the easygoing Malays were not interested in hard labor, Chinese immigrants were brought in, and they went to work in the tin mines. When the mines needed more workers, more Chinese arrived to fill the available jobs. Other Chinese moved into the British outposts, where they formed a middle class of merchants and moneylenders, just like they did in Manila, Batavia and Bangkok.
Late in the nineteenth century, another important industry, rubber, got started in Malaya. The story of how that happened deserves to be told in detail, because it is another example of an individual who changed the world. Originally rubber was only available in the New World. The favorite sport of the Mayan, Aztec and other Mesoamerican civilizations was a ball game resembling soccer, that used a ball made from solid rubber. They got their rubber from latex, a sap extracted from certain plants. In North America you could get latex from a desert shrub called guayule, but the best source was the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, which only grew in the Amazon jungle. As soon as Europeans discovered rubber, they thought it was a nifty thing to have, but the seeds of the rubber tree lost their fertility so quickly that they could not be planted anywhere but Brazil.
The drug used to treat malaria, quinine, came from another South American plant, the cinchona tree, and in 1860 Clements Markham successfully transported cinchona trees across the Atlantic, but even the fastest clipper ships could not deliver rubber seeds in time. Thus, Brazil enjoyed a monopoly on rubber when the process of vulcanization was developed, and the demand for rubber was great, now that it could be put to many new uses, like tires.
This was the situation when a British adventurer named Henry Wickham entered the picture. Wickham found life in England boring, so he spent his life traveling around the world seeking his fortune. He tried to do it by raising various crops wherever he went. These included sugar, manioc, tobacco, sponges, coconuts and pearls, but he failed at all of them. Only once did a scheme of his work, and what a success that was! It happened in 1876, when Wickham came to Brazil to gather rubber seeds. He had been offered £10 for every thousand seeds he could bring back alive to England. Wickham managed to collect 70,000 seeds, potentially worth £700, before he figured out a way to deliver them. Then a British steamship came to the Amazon city of Manaus, not far from where Wickham was. The ship delivered its cargo, but the captain found, to his dismay, that he had lost his cargo for the return trip. When Wickham heard about the empty steamship, he chartered it, loaded it with the seeds, and sent it to England, knowing it would cross the ocean faster than any sailing ship. There was a tricky moment when he had to get the seeds past Brazilian customs agents, and he used the honest approach, telling them that the ship was full of delicate plants “for delivery to Her Britannic Majesty’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.” The agents didn’t know that the Kew Gardens are the plant nursery and botanical research center of the British Empire, so they let the ship go without inspecting it; they must have thought Wickham was taking orchids to Queen Victoria.
Fortunately for Wickham, he was paid for the number of seeds delivered, not the number that survived the trip. At Kew Gardens 2,397 seeds sprouted, 3.42% of the total amount. Six months later, rubber seedlings were shipped to India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. The Singaporean seedlings went to neighboring Malaya, where plantations were set up to cultivate them. Whereas Brazilians collected latex by simply tapping wild rubber trees in the jungle, cultivated Malayan trees produced more rubber, because they had fewer diseases, and fewer parasites – and the rubber contained no shrunken heads. By 1914, the United Kingdom had replaced Brazil as the world’s largest rubber producer.
A small but significant number of Indian immigrants moved in to work on the rubber plantations. As the nineteenth century ended, the Malays found themselves becoming a minority in their own country. In fact, they were already a minority, because some Indonesian immigrants came in as well; they were considered Malays as soon as they stepped off the boat because they were of the same race and religion, and their language was almost the same. One European observer wrote that if the Chinese immigrants had brought women with them, they would have completely absorbed the Malay population within a few generations.
Malaya’s nine sultans found the Chinese newcomers to be clannish and impossible to assimilate. The Chinese miners organized themselves into gangs, which waged bloody feuds between each other for control of the tin mines. Then in 1871 the sultan of Perak died, and the Malays of that state got into a quarrel of their own, over who should be the next sultan. The British ignored these disputes at first, but in 1874 the fighting spilled over into Penang. Britain immediately went to Perak with Indian troops and ships and negotiated a treaty, the Pangkor Treaty of 1874. The sultan of Perak was given a British advisor, like the sultan of Brunei had. This advisor was not allowed to meddle with religion or local customs, but otherwise he told the sultan how to improve the local economy and made sure that the sultan did not forget Britain’s interests in the area.
The new system worked so well that by 1896 the other states in central Malaya – Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, and Selangor – also had British advisors. In that year all four states were organized into a federation, called the Federated Malay States. To outsiders and many of the Malays themselves, it looked like the British hadn’t really taken over, because the sultans remained in charge of the lands they ruled previously, but the ultimate leader of the federation was a British resident-general. The place chosen for the federation’s capital was not one of the sultans’ capitals, but Kuala Lumpur, a mining camp in Selangor. This showed where the land’s real wealth came from.
Before long the four northern sultanates were given British advisors, too, and in 1909, after the sultans supposedly “asked” for British protection, Britain forced Siam to drop its claim to the northern states. Siam was allowed to keep a piece of Kedah because it had a mostly Thai population; that became the province of Satun in modern-day Thailand. The northern sultanates were not enrolled in the federation, and were simply called the Unfederated Malay States. Although British control over the Unfederated Malay States was looser, London made sure the sultans did not even think about declaring independence. The last holdout was the southern sultanate of Johore. It resisted British advances at first, and then finally accepted a British advisor in 1914. Like the northern sultanates, Johore became one of the Unfederated Malay States.
Having British lords over them did lessen the prestige of the sultans, but the British interfered as little as possible with Malay culture. The peninsula’s ethnic mixture, however, proved to be Malaya’s biggest problem. Malays, Chinese and Indians did not trust each other; in fact, each group preferred British rule to domination by one of the other groups. Because of this situation, the only rebellion against British rule was a 1915 revolt by Indian troops in Singapore. In 1931, the Malayan Communist Party was organized in the Chinese community, and a Malay political organization, the Union of Young Malays, was founded in 1937-38. These were the only nationalist movements in Malaya before World War II, and they got started decades after similar movements appeared in the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia and Vietnam. And because of the distrust between the ethnic groups, after the war the British would offer independence before the natives asked for it.
On that note, we have gotten all the way to the beginning of World War II, where Malaya and the neighboring territories are concerned. However, we are not done watching the British Empire grow. In the next episode we will see Britain conquer one of the big mainland kingdoms, Burma, so join us again at the beginning of July 2017, or any time after that, to hear how the British did it. And then in future episodes we will see the French and the United States go for colonies of their own, followed by a series of episodes on the development of modern Southeast Asian nationalism. I promise you, it won’t be boring!
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