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#5: James Douglas doted on Martha

In 1872, a sturdy man, nearly 70, steps onto his front porch, jump rope in hand. He skips for a time, then heads inside to pen a note to his daughter away at school in England to chase away "the cobwebs of colonial training." He is James Douglas, former governor of Vancouver Island and new mainland colony of B.C. His half-aboriginal daughter, Martha Douglas Harris, will become the first female author to be born in B.C.

February 21st, 2014

James Douglas’ twinned chords of hope and fatherly guidance are captured in the following article by W. Kaye Lamb in 1937. Born in New Westminster in 1904, Lamb has been described as British Columbia’s greatest librarian, one of the most under-celebrated figures of British Columbia’s literary history.

Martha Harris, the first BC-born female author

Martha Harris, the first BC-born female author

Martha Douglas, youngest child of Sir James and Lady Douglas, was born in old Fort Victoria on June 8, 1854. She seems to have been Douglas’s favourite daughter; and we may surmise that circumstances, as well as her own attractive and vivacious personality, contributed to this end. For Martha was only 10 years old when Douglas retired from public life, and in the quiet years which followed, he naturally had more time to devote to her than he had been able to spend with her elder sisters. A rare confidence and friendship developed between them; and it was with a heavy heart that Douglas came to the conclusion that they must part for a time. When Martha was 18, it was arranged that she should go to England to complete her education; and on August 13, 1872, she sailed from Victoria for San Francisco, bound for New York and London.

The steamer was scarcely out of Victoria Harbour before Douglas was seated at his desk, writing the first of what proved to be a long series of letters to his beloved Martha. Preserved and treasured by her for half a century, some seventy of these letters have now been deposited by her daughters in the Provincial Archives. Although, as one would expect, they deal mostly with family affairs, they contain many passages of historical interest, which throw light upon Douglas’s opinions and activities after his retirement. More important still, they abound in intimate paragraphs which give us glimpses of the inner nature of the man himself. We are all familiar with the cold and formal personality of the Douglas known to history. We can admire his strength of character, strong convictions, and strict sense of duty. We can understand readily enough the circumstances which made him aloof and solitary—the long, difficult years of personal authority and responsibility, during which it became second nature to appear stern and unbending; but to gain any sense of intimacy with Douglas is another matter. Even when he put pen to paper he remained remote and formal; and, though we have letters and documents by the hundred from his hand, we know remarkably little about Douglas the man, as distinct from Douglas the Chief Factor and Governor. It is because these letters to his daughter disclose, at long last, something of the warm and sensitive nature of the man behind the official mask that so much interest attaches to them. Martha’s departure plunged the Douglas household into grief from which it never fully recovered until she was home again.

Statue of James Douglas, Fort Langley

Statue of James Douglas, Fort Langley

“There is in truth,” Sir James wrote, ten days after she had left Victoria, “a void in the house, where you were born and have been cherished for so many long years. Accustomed to your society, everything about the house, recalls your image, so vividly, at times, that I almost fancy I see you popping in upon me.” Time and again he wrote in similar vein; for Douglas was getting old, and had come to depend upon Martha for many things. Often his remarks were prompted by some incident which reminded him afresh that she was no longer there to do some small service for him. “I wish you were here to read them over to me,” he wrote in the autumn of 1873, when some one loaned him two novels, “as there is no one here reads half so well, or with a spark of your taste and “I sadly miss your pretty tasteful bouquets,” he noted a month later, “and hope you will soon appoint a deputy to attend to these duties in your absence.”  I have placed a large beautiful apple on the toilet table of your bed room of the early strawberry variety,” he wrote upon a third occasion.  “It makes me fancy you are here; though a mere delusion, it alleviates the pain of absence.”

Sorely tried as he was by her absence, Douglas was nevertheless happy to be able to give Martha an opportunity to enjoy the riches Europe had to offer. A letter written to Mr. J. W. Bushby, of London, who was making arrangements for her schooling in England, gives us an idea of what he hoped she would gain overseas. “Martha is 18 years of age,” his letter reads in part, “and so far as literature goes, is fairly educated.

She plays well, sings, has a taste for drawing, is well read, writes a good hand, and a nice letter. What should now engage her attention is elocution and English Composition, the French language, which she has studied for several years, larger and broader views of life, and that expansion of mind, which maybe called the education of the eye, and cannot be acquired out here. She is also fond of music and drawing, and may improve in both arts.”

All this would take time, as Douglas was well aware. “I never meant that you should be away for less than two years,” he remarked to Martha in June of 1873. “It will take that time to get rid of the cobwebs of colonial training, and give you a proper finish.”

Though homesick at first, Martha was soon happily settled in England. It was even proposed that she should spend a third year abroad, and to this Douglas made no objection. “I do not mind the cost,” he wrote, “provided it be for your good.”

A little later Martha suggested that she should spend a term in Paris. Douglas at first made no demur, but a few weeks later abruptly vetoed the plan, as if he had just awakened to the enormity of the proposal. “There is one strong objection however, which I cannot overcome,” he explained to Martha; “that is the dread of French morals and sentiment, which I believe to be so different from our own. It may be bigotry on my part, their moral sentiments may be as pure as our own, but still the impression, remains unchanged in my mind.” As he expressed it when he returned to the subject a little later, he felt “a reluctance to my lamb being committed to the care of Wolves.”

Douglas asked only two things of Martha—that she should take advantage of her opportunities, and that she should write frequently to those at home. Suggestions and instructions, together with words of criticism or commendation, are scattered throughout his letters. He was anxious that even her sightseeing should be systematized; and one passage on this point in an early letter is worth quoting. “I hope you will make a point of seeing Broadway, the great street of New York,” he wrote on August 24, 1872. “Inspect it closely, so as to be capable of talking about, and giving an opinion of its architecture, and general appearance. The Americans are proud of it—and the first question asked of any person, who has been to New York, generally is—What do you think of Broadway? Follow the same plan, with respect to every other celebrated place you may see. Regent Street is for example the boast and pride of London, the Rue de Rivoli of Paris, Princes Street of Edinburgh and so on with other places. Find out which is the admired thoroughfare or object, and then inspect it closely.”

Himself a most systematic and meticulous correspondent, Douglas expected Martha to be the same. His own letters were usually in diary form; and over long periods scarcely a day passed without the addition of a paragraph or a page, as events or leisure dictated. A new letter was commenced as soon as one was mailed. Indeed, upon one occasion at least, Douglas seems to have gone straight to his desk the moment he returned from the post-office. To him, a letter was a matter of consequence; and he urges Martha repeatedly to practise and improve her composition.

“Writing is a most important part of education,” he wrote upon one occasion. “I wish you to devote a great deal of time and care to its attainment.” He did not hesitate to give her a lesson in style, as two sentences later in the same letter prove. “I enclose a part of your last letter, pruned of redundancies, as a study. Observe how it is improved by the process.” Penmanship was as important as composition. “Your letters are less carefully written, than I could wish,” Douglas noted early in 1873; “the style is not bad, tho’ there are many inaccuracies. The writing is rapidly degenerating into a sprawling hand, looking for all the world, as if the letters were trying to run away from each other.”

Though sharp in reproof, Douglas was equally generous in praise when Martha’s letters came up to expectations. “How neatly your letter is written,” he remarked a month later, “with no blots and no omissions, this is as letters should be. Pray always write so.”

Many of the passages dealing with style and diction are both amusing and revealing.  Martha commenced some of her first letters, “Dear Parents “—a form of address which annoyed Douglas profoundly, and which he declared “means nobody.”

“When you write to Mamma,” he continued, “write and speak to her, as you know how, and when you write to Papa, write and speak to him, as if he was before you; and then you will write well, and entirely to my taste.”

Upon another occasion he was distressed to find Martha using slang expressions. “Above all things,” he cautioned her, “avoid ‘slang’ phrases, such as ‘chaff,’ &c. . . . A lady never uses slang phrases, which are essentially vulgar and to me unbearable.”  The offending word has, of course, long since won admission to colloquial English and the Oxford Dictionary.

Letter after letter reveals that what Douglas craved was news, and yet more news, of his beloved Martha. “There is nothing to reply to, in your letter,” he complained upon one occasion; “tell me all about yourself, your studies, your pursuits, your thoughts, state of mind; in short a complete full length portrait of my daughter.” His longing for news caused Martha to invade his dreams. “I was dreaming of you the other night,” he tells her. “You came running into the house and with open arms towards Papa, exclaiming ‘Oh Papa I am so sorry.’ More I did not hear. I suppose you were sorry for not writing oftener?”

Martha’s letters, as this query would imply, were for a time few and far between. Four long months after her departure Douglas noted sadly that his  “Foreign Correspondent,” as he called her, had favoured him with only two letters. Later it became apparent that the postal service, and not Martha, had been most at fault; but in the interval Douglas had felt the matter keenly.

James Douglas

James Douglas

Political paragraphs of considerable interest appear in some of the letters. The earliest of these concern the collapse of the first government formed after British Columbia joined the Dominion, which was headed by J. F. McCreight, whom Martha knew well. “Party spirit as usual runs high,” Douglas wrote in December, 1872, “and a fearful crash of the Ministry is expected when the meeting of Parliament takes place next week. I tremble for poor McCreight and Co-adjutors. They will surely go to the wall, unless they shew a bold front, and make a good fight.” But McCreight, who was not a politician and was weary of politics, made no determined stand, and accepted defeat by a single vote. “I know you will sympathize with your friend McCreight,” Douglas wrote to Martha; “so do I, and sincerely wish they had made a better fight with the opposition instead of going to the wall at once.” Three days later he reported the personnel of the new government. “New Ministry formed. De Cosmos Premier, Walkem Attorney General, Dr. Ash Provincial Secretary, Robt. Beaven Comr. of Lands and Works. A bright constellation is it not?”

No one who recalls the long and bitter battles which had taken place between Amor De Cosmos and Governor Douglas will be surprised by this last remark; but they may well find the sequel unexpected. For in spite of his opinion of De Cosmos, Douglas proved sufficiently broad and generous to commend the policy of his old opponent. “The Legislative Assembly was prorogued the other day,” he reported to Martha the following February, “and people begin to breathe freely again. . . . On the whole there is no reason to complain of the legislation of this year, less so, I fancy, than if McCreight had been in power.” He adds, “The new Ministry are not so bad after all: they have made a bold attempt to be frugal, and have past some really good measures.”

Most of the succeeding references are linked in some way with the Canadian Pacific Railway, in which Douglas was keenly interested. For those eager to see construction commenced, 1873 was a year filled with contrasting emotions. To begin with, all seemed to be well. “It is announced in this day’s telegrams from Ontario,” Douglas wrote on January 31st, “that all arrangements have been completed for the construction of the Canada Pacific Railway; so that we are all in the highest spirits and looking forward with confidence to the rise of dear Victoria, and the replenishing of her well drained coffers.” As late as May 6th, no reason to expect delay had yet developed. “Ground is to be broken on the 1st July next, when the terminus will be fixed,” Douglas informed Martha. “Every one is hoping that Esquimalt will be the point, where you know we have large interests; and I am selfish enough to wish the station to be on my ground.”

In due course the happy announcement was made that Esquimalt, as anticipated, would be the terminus, and construction actually commenced. “The first sod of the Pacific Canadian Railway was turned on Saturday [July 19th], by M. Smith, in a quiet way, without any public demonstration,” Douglas reported. “The terminus is at the Admiral’s House, Maple Bay, Esquimalt, the line running from thence, towards the Indian village near or opposite Craigfiower.”

Marriage of Martha Douglas to Dennis Harris, 1878

Marriage of Martha Douglas to Dennis Harris, 1878

Comments upon many topics show the keen attention with which Douglas, though long in retirement, followed events in British Columbia. Reports of the discovery of new mineral wealth seem to have been of special interest to him, and he kept Martha informed of the progress of the gold-rush to Cassiar. In November, 1873, he recorded an event of some interest in the maritime history of the Province. “A ship has just sailed with a full cargo, of Vancouver Island produce, the first direct shipment of the kind to England, except the HB Co. ships,” he wrote to Martha. “This is a subject of gratulation to the whole Colony. The good ship was followed from the wharf, by loud cheers from the spectators.” The vessel in question was the English barque Charlotte Clarke, which cleared from Victoria on November 21st, bound for London.

Special interest attaches to his reaction to the San Juan arbitration decision, in view of the determined stand he had taken in the early stages of the controversy. “We have just heard, that the San Juan question has been decided against England, and we have lost the Island,” he wrote to Martha. “I cannot help thinking that our case has not been fully or clearly represented, to the Emperor of Germany, or he could not have arrived at so unjust a decision which is utterly at variance with the rights of the relative parties.  Well there is no help for it now, we have lost the stakes, and must just take it easily.” When the time came for the actual evacuation of San Juan by the British troops, however, Douglas could no longer take the matter philosophically. “The Island of San Juan is gone at last,” he noted. “I cannot trust myself to speak about it and will be silent.”

Interesting as these comments upon public affairs may be, the peculiar value of the letters to Martha lies in their revelation of personal characteristics of Douglas which were never permitted to appear in his official correspondence, voluminous though it was. We learn, for example, that Douglas was keenly sensitive to his natural surroundings. The first blossom in spring and the last in autumn drew his attention and comment. “The Daisies are coming into flower; saw the first today,” is a typical entry. “I could still make you a bouquet from the flowers in the garden still in bloom, if you were within reach,” he wrote to Martha one November.

Riding or driving through the country was a daily source of pleasure to him. “The enjoyment was perfect, pure, unalloyed happiness,” he concluded a description of one such expedition. In October 1873, he attended the consecration of the church at Metchosin, and after the service wandered to the edge of the cliffs near by. “Metchosen looked its best,” he wrote to Martha, “the beautiful slopes, the richly tinted foliage, the bright clear sky, the warm sunshine, the glassy smooth sea, and the grand mountains in the distance, formed a combination of indescribable beauty. I felt an exhilaration of mind, which led me to wander away through the woods towards the ‘white cliffs’ bordering the sea, from whence I contemplated its placid waters with delight.”

It will be recalled that Martha sailed from Victoria on August 13th, and that Douglas commenced the first of his letters to her the same day. Two days later he added a sentence which revives the old uncertainty about the date of his birth. “My birthday,” it reads, “kept it quiet to avoid fuss.” An entry in an early personal account-book states that he was born on June 5, 1803; and as the note is in Douglas’s own handwriting it has naturally been taken as authoritative. Evidence of equal strength, though later date, now supports the claim of August 15th as his birthdate. Whichever date is correct, Douglas celebrated his sixty-ninth birthday in 1872, a fact which causes one to read with surprise an entry dated October 2nd: “Had a good jumping on the verandah with the skipping rope for exercise.” It is scarcely necessary to add that his health appears to have been excellent. He comments upon the fact from time to time, and an occasional touch of gout is his only recorded ailment. For this we find him planning an unusual cure in the early spring of 1873. “I am also going largely into Raspberry Culture,” he reported to Martha, “which has the reputation of being a most wholesome fruit, especially recommended in cases of Gout; so I shall make it a rule to make a very free use of them.”

It is refreshing to find that the letters contain clear evidence that Douglas possessed a sense of humour. Upon one occasion, for example, he regaled Martha with the following account of Lady Douglas, most loving of mothers, who, it seems, was never completely happy unless she fancied herself slightly indisposed. “Mamma is in excellent health,” Douglas wrote, “though she will not think so. Up every morning at 6 o’clock she bustles about till breakfast time. The chickens now fill her mind with anxious care, and we all look grave and appear to sympathize, if mishaps occur. To laugh would be a serious offence.”

Another incident suggests that Douglas did not take himself as seriously as many would have us suppose. “Ellen attends the Nuns school,” he wrote with reference to a child whom Martha knew; “she is very quick and is the most restless child I ever saw. It is impossible to keep her quiet for ten minutes together even in my stern presence.”

A third passage illustrates the same point, and at the same time recalls a critical moment in Douglas’s early career. The reference is to a copy of the Victoria Standard which was for warded with the letter. “In another column,” Douglas wrote, “you will find a letter from the Ottawa Free Press, do read it, and see how it treats me, they wish to make of me, who am as you know a quiet old gentleman enough, a sort of Dare devil, fearing nothing. True I seized the Indian, a noted murderer, as stated, and secured him after a desperate struggle, but I did not shoot him with my own hands; he was afterwards executed for his crimes. It was a desperate adventure, which nothing but a high sense of duty could have induced me to undertake.”

It is noteworthy that this is one of only two references to his fur-trading days to be found in the entire series of seventy letters. The second, which is dated May 30, 1873, indicates that Douglas felt keenly the passing of old Hudson’s Bay officers with whom he had worked years before. “My old friend Dr. Barclay died lately at Oregon City,” he remarks. “The enclosed clipping relates his history. Truly the world is becoming a desert.”

Douglas had long toyed with the idea of going to England and escorting Martha home, and the project was discussed in his letters from time to time. When Martha was planning a third year abroad, the plan was seemingly abandoned, only to be suddenly revived and carried swiftly into execution when it was decided finally that she should return home instead. The last of the letters to Martha is dated May 27, 1874; but a diary kept by Sir James enables us to complete the story.           Leaving Victoria on June 25th, Douglas travelled to San Francisco by steamer, and thence overland to New York, where he took ship for England. He arrived at Southampton on July 21st, and three days later was at Lowestoft, where, to his infinite joy, he “found Martha well.” A brief month was spent visiting friends and relatives in England and Scotland, and on August 27th Sir James and Martha sailed from Liverpool. On September 6th they reached Quebec, and on the 21st arrived in San Francisco. Five days later Douglas recorded the conclusion of the journey in his diary. “Arrived Victoria at 4 A.M. found all well.”

All was, indeed, well. Martha was home again.

Lamb, W.K.

W.K. Lamb wrote this article.


Excerpted from”Letters to Martha,” an article in the British Columbia Historical Quarterly, Volume 1, January 1937. Published by the Archives of British Columbia in cooperation with the British Columbia Historical Association.


Martha Douglas Harris became the first female author to be born in B.C.  She was greatly influenced by her half-Cree mother, Lady Amelia Douglas, from whom she inherited a respect for aboriginal legends and storytelling.

As the youngest (and possibly favourite) daughter of the most powerful man in British Columbia for almost two decades, Sir James Douglas, she waited until her parents had died before adapting (rather than translating) six of her mother’s Cree stories and 14 Cowichan stories for History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians (1901), the first collection of Aboriginal stories commercially published from British Columbia.

This book predated Pauline Johnson’s better-known Legends of Vancouver by ten years. Some of the information that follows about her was gleaned from original research undertaken by Tusa Shea, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Victoria, who contributed to the exhibition catalogue “A Woman’s Place: Art and the Role of Women in the Cultural Formation of Victoria BC, 1850’s – 1920s” (2004-2005).

Martha Douglas Harris had a mixed race heritage that was not widely discussed during her lifetime. Her father James Douglas was born in British Guiana in 1803 as the son of a Creole (half-black) mother and a Scottish-born merchant. Amelia Douglas was born at Fort Assihniboine, Rupertsland, in 1812, as the daughter of North West Company fur trader William Connolly and his Cree wife Miyo Nipiy. At age nine she moved to New Caledonia (interior British Columbia) where her father was a chief factor for the recently reorganized Hudson’s Bay Company. At Fort St. James in 1828 she married one of her father’s clerks, James Douglas, who chose the site for Fort Victoria in 1842 and became the first governor of the mainland colony of British Columbia in 1858. Known as ‘Old Squaretoes’ for his stiff, autocratic manner, he was knighted upon his retirement in 1864 and he died in Victoria in 1877. Lady Amelia Douglas was a shy woman who had six children who survived into adulthood. She died in Victoria in 1890.

Born in 1854, three years after her father became Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, Martha Douglas Harris married colonial official Dennis Reginald Harris during a lavish wedding in 1878, not long after her father died. She collected her versions of Aboriginal stories throughout her lifetime but postponed publication of her Cowichan and Cree stories out of deference to her parents’ sensitivities about their racial backgrounds. Harris stated she compiled the 20 stories to protect and recall the “native dignity and wholesome life” of the Cowichan tribe on Vancouver Island. She ended the collection with six of her mother’s stories including “the Adventures of Hyas.” When Harris was in England taking classes for elocution, drawing, French, composition and music, her father wrote to her, “I have no objection to your telling the old stories about ‘Hyass’ but pray do not tell the world they are Mamma’s.”

Martha Harris’s affinity for First Nations culture was not merely romantic. She gathered a collection of Aboriginal basketry that is now housed at the Royal British Columbia Museum and she maintained friendships with First Nations families living on the Songhees Reserve. In 1912 she expressed her dismay and consternation in a letter to the editor of Daily Colonist in response to the relocation of the Songhees people to Esquimalt following the government’s purchase of the valuable Songhees Reserve lands. Specifically she described the plight of her friend Tom James, a Cowichan who had married a Songhees woman. “If by law a white man acquired land by adverse possession of 12 or 20 years,” she argued, “why has Tom James not acquired an equally good right by 34 years’ undisputed possession?… Must the government conjure up technicalities to find an excuse for depriving this man and his wife of their equitable claim?”

Trained for feminine gentility in England, Harris attended a ladies school called Lansdowne House between 1872 and 1874. She also received drawing and needlework lessons at the Anglican Ladies Collegiate School (later known as Angela College) and briefly studied painting in 1887 with Georgina de l’Aubinière. As a member of the Island Arts and Crafts Society, she frequently exhibited her traditional still-lifes and portraits as a ‘paintress.’ Her interests in the arts was remarkably diverse. Also a lacemaker, she formed the Lace Club of Victoria in 1919 with her friend Hilda Napier in order to encourage pillow lace-making and the techniques of Carrickmacross and Limerick Point. Other charter members included Emily Carr and Hannah Maynard. Harris also sang in the church choir and participated in musical theatricals under the direction of her music teacher Mrs. Macdonald. To promote hand spinning with B.C. wool she taught other women how to weave and encouraged the local production of spinning wheels in Victoria. Her own spinning wheel was donated to Helmcken House in the 1930s. She learned to administer native plant dyes to wool acquired from sheep breeders in Summerland, Chilliwack and on Vancouver Island, leading to the formation of the Women’s Institute Weavers Guild, later known as the Victoria Hand Weavers Guild. She also laid the groundwork for the Island Weavers Plant, a commercial undertaking created by Enid Murray at Esquimalt in 1933. As a founding member of the Island Arts and Craft Society in 1909, she learned wood carving from Edinburgh-born George Selkirk Gibson who provided decorative carvings for the residences designed by Samuel Maclure, including the Dunsmuir estate of Hatley Park.

Martha Douglas Harris died in 1933. A reprinted version of her work features the original watercolour sketches of local Aboriginals by her friend Margaret C. Maclure (wife of architect Samuel Maclure) who died in 1938, and an introduction by Paul Lindholdt of Eastern Washington University, who suggests the stories seem to function in many instances to exert male control but it “would be wrong to consider these stories mere male moralities, though. They offer sturdy pictures of the material cultures and social structures of nineteenth century Cowichans and Crees. They remind of antique times when the tissue of reality separating men from minks was thinner, when righteous sea lions could take revenge on human beings, when a child might voluntarily go feral to join a wolf pack and thereby gain great powers.” Harris admitted of her stories, “When written down, they lose their charm which was in the telling. They need the quaint songs and the sweet voice that told them, the winter loaming and the bright fire as the only light—then were these legends beautiful.”

Summary by Alan Twigg


Harris, Martha Douglas. History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians (Victoria: The Colonist Printing and Publishing Company, 1901; Spokane: Marquette Books, 2004).

– Alan Twigg

Jane Watt of the BC Historical Federation

This article is part of an ongoing series of looks into the Rear View Mirror of the past that is presented by our colleagues at British Columbia History, the province’s most venerable literary periodical, dating back to 1937. As the journal of the B.C. Historical Federation, BCH is published quarterly in March, June, September and December. It provides feature-length articles as well as documentary selections, essays, pictorial essays, memoirs, and reviews relating to the social, economic, political, intellectual, and cultural history of British Columbia. British Columbia History began in 1923 as the Annual Report and Proceedings of the British Columbia Historical Association (now the British Columbia Historical Federation). From 1937-58 it was published as the British Columbia Historical Quarterly. From 1965-2005, it was called the BC Historical News. The BCHF is fortunate to have the support of the UBC Library in digitizing the back issues of its publications and supporting the stewardship of these important links to the past (available here).

Subscriptions to British Columbia History are managed by the Magazine Association of BC.  To subscribe for $20 per year, visit the journal at or email or send a cheque to #201-318 Homer St., Vancouver, BC V6B 2V2.

For book reviews or queries related to British Columbia History, contact K. Jane Watt at . For its editor Andrea Lister, contact

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