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Emigration from Brønnøy and Vik in Helgeland *
    by Kjell Erik Skaaren translated by C. A. Clausen
(Volume 29: Page 293)

* "Utvandring fra Helgeland," in Arnfinn Engen, ed., Utvandringa - det store oppbrotet (Oslo, 1978), 122-136. The article is based on the author's thesis, "Utvandringen til Amerika fra Brønnøy og Vik 1867-1899," University of Trondheim, 1971.

EMIGRATION FROM Brønnøy and Vik in Helgeland began late but vigorously in the years 1868 and 1869. During the previous years only a few individuals had left - barely enough to be noticed in the statistical tables. This pattern is typical of most of the communities in North Norway. The America fever became prevalent only in the 1860s, and its intensity fluctuated markedly.

The causes of emigration were many, but only the economic factors will be considered here. The period around 1860 is unique; County Governor (amtmann) Worsøe noted in a five-year report that "Nordland in 1879 is not the Nordland of 1865." It is obvious that something happened from one five-year period to the next: first a development toward prosperity, then years of famine. These economic conditions will be juxtaposed to the emigration figures and results arrived at will be noted. Records and tradition agree that worsening economic and social conditions caused the people of these communities to emigrate. A growing restlessness began to spread abroad in the district.

But first one should take a look at the historical background. From time immemorial the Nordlending had sustained himself by agriculture and fishing. Son followed father, and only at rare intervals were slight changes noticeable as generation succeeded generation. Social conditions were static here as they were in other parts of the country. On the little farms children helped with the work until they became adults, which happened at an early age. The small crops could sustain only a certain number of people and after the oldest son brought his wife to the family farm, the younger siblings were forced to secure employment somewhere in the surrounding communities as soon as they were confirmed.

The fortunate ones became cotters with land, others became cotters without land or day laborers and servants - with fishing for extra earnings. Girls usually became servants, and in time they might marry cotters. Occasionally, when a farmer needed steady labor during busy seasons, he might select one of his best laborers as a cotter - who would then clear a place and build a house for himself.

For most people in the old agrarian society, farming provided an uncertain mode of existence. Some years "God's wrath" would strike the community. The pastures would be almost devoid of grass, the grain harvest ruined by either rain or frost - even the generally dependable potatoes might yield only half the expected crop. In 1867 it is reported from Nordland that people going to the midsummer markets could ride in sleds over the lakes. 1864 and 1865 had also been years of widespread crop failure.

Along the coast the economy had a more secure foundation. Fodder for the animals was supplemented with various types of seaweed, fish offal, or dried leaves, while people could vary their diet with herring and potatoes one day and potatoes and herring the next. Furthermore, during good cod and herring years some cash might even be laid aside. As fishing was one of the few sources of' income, more than 50 percent of the male population ranging in age from 15 to 60 years took part in the extensive codfishing operations in the Lofoten archipelago. From Trøndelag and North Norway more than 30,000 men might be thus engaged annually. But the risk to life was great. It is reported that during a certain year more than five hundred men were lost in a sudden storm.

Thus there was a continual struggle to earn a living. Even with the iron will of a Karl Oskar in Moberg's novel, The Emigrants, or an Isak Sellanraa in Hamsun's Growth of the Soil, a surplus could seldom be accumulated over the long run. It was as if people lived by grace, and the future could not be planned.

Higher taxes of all sorts during the early years of the cash economy led to foreclosures and sales of farms. Land was one of the few standards of value; and it was the only natural, the only productive element in society. From the purely personal point of view land ownership was a status symbol, and the increased school and poor-relief taxes were felt to be a threat to the farmers. Even though the cash economy put pressure on them to sell their produce, not all of them did this - in contrast, for instance, to the people who shipped goods to Bergen via the annual Nordland fleet. Possibly the farms were located in an outlying region, or the farmers may have chosen to put aside some grain and potatoes for next spring's seeding and planting. Or they were reluctant to send agricultural products out of the local community where they were so sorely needed. Thus cash income might turn out to be very irregular.

But the authorities seldom took this fact into consideration. When state or municipality needed funds, they simply levied extra taxes. Around 1880 the municipal taxes tripled over a ten to fifteen-year period in Brønnøy and Vik, which in turn led to greater expenses for such things as poor relief.

There was another circumstance, moreover, which caused conditions to deteriorate considerably. During the previous centuries the population in Brønnøy and Vik - as in Nordland generally - had grown very slowly. But now the rate of increase in these communities was almost double that of the country as a whole. Most of the other rural communities in Norway had, ever since the 1830s and 1840s, been experiencing an exodus of their citizens to the urban centers, to North Norway -and even, little by little, to North America.

The increase in population in Nordland apparently did not make itself felt until the middle of the century. And the growing number of children who survived because of more food and better hygiene and access to medical care did not become a problem until they reached adulthood around 1860. Now they discovered that there was not a place for them in the community. The farms could not be further subdivided; and only a few would attempt, like Isak in Growth of the Soil, to clear a place for themselves in the wilderness. The struggle for existence became more intense. Population pressure becomes evident only when there is a lack of economic opportunity. Here the pressure came primarily from within the communities and led to the increased subdividing of land. This shortage of space was not as acutely felt in the coastal regions, where fishing furnished an additional source of livelihood. But after 1879 the fisheries also declined and seldom exceeded 70 percent of the yield of previous years.

Increased movement from Brønnøy and Vik to other parts of Norway became evident with the 1850s, but there was a decline during the 1880s when the America fever reached its highest intensity. Toward the end of the century, however, there was another increase in internal migration. As early as the 1850s approximately 50 percent of the migrants during certain years left for Finnmark - especially for the city of Hammerfest. There were two primary causes for this trek toward the north. First, the desire to own land was intense, and this urge could be satisfied in Finnmark. Even as late as 1890 articles and advertisements like the following could appear: "Go to Finnmark, not to America." Descriptions were given of the many beautiful areas in South Varanger, in the eastern part of Finnmark. There cotters and day laborers could become independent landowners. Also, the possibility of securing cash by trading with the Russians, the so-called "Pomor trade," was another alternative to going to America. While laborers earned only 40 to 50 kroner per year in inner Finnmark around 1880, they might earn as much as 1,000 kroner in the coastal areas. There was an abundance of fish which they could trade for flour with the Russians. But the main attraction was, no doubt, the fact that they could sell their fish for cash.

People who moved into Brønnøy and Vik came primarily from the south, from Trøndelag and the upper valleys of East Norway (Østlandet), and a few from Sweden. When the cotter system reached its peak in Trøndelag and farther south, the cotters and other poor people sought new outlets. It became obvious in those southerly areas, much sooner than in Helgeland, that subdividing of farms had reached its limit. As a consequence, during the mid-century years, two migratory streams became noticeable besides the trek toward the cities: one toward the north and one toward America. Finnmark was always a special case. Otherwise, movement of people from southern Norway was first noticed in the southern part of North Norway, but gradually made itself felt farther north. Presumably Brønnøy and Vik attracted people from the south as colonizing districts largely because of the fishing possibilities found there.

The population pressure in Brønnøy and Vik developed partly because of movement into the communities, but even more because of population growth from within. This overcrowding did not affect the fishing regions as much as the agricultural areas. Fishing could absorb comparatively large numbers of people since the fisherman needed but a small plot of ground in order to raise the most necessary agricultural products, such as potatoes. It seems as if movement into the outer fishing areas took place during and after good fishing years, most especially during the storsild (mature herring prior to spawning, about twelve inches in length) era up to1874.

Throughout the centuries both the soil and the sea have been harvested by the people of Nordland. For most of them, agriculture was of primary importance; but as Brønnøy and Vik are located close to the sea, fishing necessarily became an important subsidiary source of income. The soil gave people their daily bread, but that was about all. An Isak Sellanraa, here as in the district generally, very seldom reaped any surplus from all his toil. The sea, however, could yield hard cash during good years; and men's hopes clung to the great fisheries. Bad years might strike either agriculture or the fisheries, but seldom 1)0th at the same time. Farming was looked upon as slave labor while fishing, like a game of chance, offered the possibility of quick gain. It could happen that a farmer's son would rather risk his luck at fishing than take charge of the family acres; he might hire out as a laborer on some little farm located near the coast or on an island. Many a landowner denounced such a son as a "traitor" to the ancestral inheritance. Because of the good fishing prospects it was difficult to secure hired help. Furthermore, when banks were established after the 1860s it became possible to secure loans for buying and equipping a boat, which would give a fisherman the feeling of being his own boss. As a consequence the farmer and the women were left more or less alone on the land. But the farmer was also expected to do part-time fishing; he too was hoping to garner some cash in exchange for "the silver of the sea."

Men and boys twelve years old or over might be engaged four months or more in the Lofoten fishing and even another three months if they set off directly to the second major fishery in North Norway, in Finnmark. At home, the wife was forced to carry on the farm work, a state of affairs which caused the county governor of Nordland to complain of its effect on agriculture. In many five-year reports successive governors maintained that agriculture ought to furnish the main livelihood of the district, but fishing for summer herring and feitsild (fat herring, six to twelve inches long) together with the Finnmark fisheries hindered its development.

During the period 1869-1878 the Nordlendings could haul in great riches from the sea. In this decade Nordland accounted for 65 percent of the yield in North Norway and as much as 45 percent of the direct profit of all Norwegian fisheries. The economy in Nordland during the second half of the century was thus considerably more ample than in the rest of the country. In some years and series of years the fisheries gave the Nordlendings very good incomes. It has already been noted that about half of all males between the ages of 15 and 60 took part in the Lofoten fisheries, but it is reasonable to assume that others took part in various cod fisheries nearer home. As regards the Lofoten fishermen, all the way up to 1881 about one-fourth of them left fur the Finnmark fisheries as soon as the Lofoten season ended.

It was the arrival of the storsild, however, which caused the greatest stir along the Helgeland coast. Shoals of storsild were reported already in the early 1860s, but unprepared as people were with regard to the necessary equipment (salt, salting houses, barrels), the fisheries did not get a real start until the year 1867. The storsild created a boom period "the likes of which the district had never seen." During this period the shoals penetrated farther and farther north every year, but apparently it was the fisheries off the coast of Helgeland which attracted most attention. In Bodø people talked of nothing but Skibbåtsvær and Asvær in North Helgeland.

There are no figures showing how many men from Brønnøy and Vik took part in the storsild fishery, or how much revenue it brought in. The statistics covering the herring fisheries are inadequate prior to 1876; but undoubtedly a large percentage of the fishermen from the district were involved, both locally and on the larger fishing grounds. The year 1871 brought in a record catch of nearly five million kroner for the county of Nordland - but in 1874 the storsild disappeared suddenly and mysteriously.

It is impossible to give in exact figures the economic advances made during this boom period. The income was dispersed among all classes of people: the businessmen who financed expeditions and speculated in herring, farmers and fishermen who brought in the catches, women and children who did much of the cleaning and salting of the fish. A poor fisherman of the district is said to have hauled in no less than 200 speciedaler worth of fish in one lucky catch. Naturally, these developments led to the accumulation of capital in certain districts. It is estimated that the wealth of Brønnøy and Vik increased by 45 percent between 1871 and 1875.

The storsild fisheries also produced a crop of "storsild tycoons." One of them, Ulrik Quale of Kvaløy near Brønnøysund, is quoted as saying: "Despite the honest treatment we received in Bergen, we still were at the mercy of Bergen merchants. But the storsild epoch made us independent." Quale expanded his business into a many-sided concern.

The storsild fishery took place during the months of October to December, but a good summer fishery was also carried on at Brønnøy and Bindal. Most of the people engaged were thus enabled to extend the profitable fishing season.

The storsild shoals were a strange interlude for Helgeland. When they suddenly disappeared, the salting houses and other large establishments built during the epoch became - in many areas - practically worthless. The ensuing economic crash was, in all likelihood, tempered for Brønnøy and Vik by the good feitsild years which followed from 1876 through 1878, when catches valued at more than a million kroner were made. While the estimated wealth of southern Helgeland increased by 29 percent during this brief period, the corresponding figure for Brønnøy and Vik was 45 percent.

The governor of Nordland wrote a report in 1889 covering economic and social conditions during the decade just ended. He stated that the county (amt) had made appreciable advances because of the fisheries. Those who had invested heavily in better equipment were left with great debts when the storsild disappeared; however, many who were in debt before the good years managed to free themselves and make progress. Old houses were repaired, a number of tenants bought the land they were tilling, and more money was available for daily comforts. He also reported that interest in education and general information had increased during those years, and that "previous not uncommon discontent with current conditions, and a resultant urge to emigrate, have been replaced by contentment and greater zest for work."

Fishery earnings dropped greatly after 1880. Income from cod and herring catches in Nordland declined by more than two million kroner annually, and this occurred while prices for agricultural products were still low. In 1886 the chief magistrate (sorenskriver) for South Helgeland reported to the governor as follows concerning the past five-year period: "Poverty is increasing at a steady and alarming rate . . . no economic progress can be noted." The 189 1-1895 period was somewhat better, but the final five years of the century must have been quite miserable


The farmers of Brønnøy and Vik did not enjoy an easy time during the last half of the nineteenth century. Prices of agricultural products did not increase as rapidly as prices of other goods, especially fish. Wages and income were shoved upward by the intermittent good fisheries. Little was left for the farmers after the inflated wages had been subtracted from the farm income. Transportation and market facilities for agricultural produce were deficient. Farm families could, however, provide themselves with the main necessities of life. An old citizen remarked that "we did have milk for the coffee, flour, and potatoes." Farming methods were generally plodding and awkward. Even after 1850 wooden plows were used, and the seed grain was hoed and raked into the ground. Most people in Brønnøy and Vik had a desire for land, and thus it was quite common that even agricultural laborers (innerster) might have a plot of ground as their own. Cultivated soil was so attractive that the plainest woman might win herself a man if she owned a bit of a farm. This fact became the butt of many a joke.

A marked transition from tenancy to land ownership took place from about 1860 to 1870. Tenant farmers could not afford to buy their farms until the good fisheries provided the means. The following table lists the number of landowners and tenants in the county of Nordland during the years 1825-1900:

Land owners

Cattle raising in Nordland during the nineteenth century was characterized by a disproportionately large number of animals relative to the cultivated areas. This was made possible by a large use of supplemental fodder such as kelp and other seaweed, fish offal, leaves, and bark, which reduced the necessity of large-scale slaughtering during periods of crisis, though as a result the cows usually did not give any milk until midsummer. By the end of the century the number of cattle had declined considerably, and the farmers had gradually begun to cultivate more pastureland. Advances in animal husbandry became evident in various ways. For instance, the average amount of milk given by a cow in 1907 was 1,100 liters as compared with 700 in 1865. These figures relate to all of Nordland.

The clearest impression of the state of agriculture in the 1870s during the transition from traditional to new methods of farming may perhaps be gained by considering some of the many difficulties encountered.

The climate was an ever-present problem. It was not an easy matter to grow good crops when the spring was chilly and the summer brief and people clung to the old methods of work. Farmers might hear about such newfangled ideas as draining, fertilizing, and crop rotation but years passed before they put them into practice. Underfeeding of cattle was general until the 1880s. During the 1860s the governor of Nordland reported that with proper care of the cows, the amount of milk could be tripled.

Lack of interest in farm work is frequently mentioned in the governors' reports. Usually farmers cultivated land which was so dry that there was no need of draining. The reason so little marsh land was put under cultivation sprang from the general dislike of strenuous work with the soil, especially ditch digging. Some farmers even retired at the early age of forty or fifty and accepted a pension (kår) from the person (usually the oldest son) who took charge of the farm after him. Still, it is a commonplace remark in the five-year reports of the governors during the nineteenth century that the minority who owned their own land did better by it than did tenant farmers. The fisheries, as already mentioned, drew labor away from farming, especially the summer herring and feitsild fisheries which took place during summer and fall, thus diminishing the labor supply during the busiest agricultural seasons. Wages rose during good fishing years, thereby reducing the net income from agriculture.

Banks were not established in Nordland until after 1850, and not until the 1870s did the granting of loans become general. Up to the end of the century, loans and economic support were far less common in Nordland than in the rest of the country.

Improvements in the agricultural situation came slowly. Farmers gradually introduced new types of seed and crop rotation. Fertilizing with seaweed, fish offal, and manure was systematically introduced. Drainage of various areas was also undertaken. Such supplemental fodder as kelp was replaced by hay. People gradually realized that rational care of animals paid off in higher income, and labor shortage could be compensated by securing better farm implements. Undoubtedly the consolidating of fields into one unit instead of the old strip-farming system was also an advantage. After the 1860s agricultural societies sprang up which endeavored to introduce newer and better systems of farming.


The following survey, covering the four northern counties of Norway, indicates that the intensity of emigration to America decreases the farther north one proceeds, except for Finnmark. The figures show how many people emigrated per 1000 average population during the periods listed.

Country 1866-1875 1876-1890 1891-1900
North Trøndelag 7.4 8.7 5.3
Nordland 2.9 4.0 2.5
Troms 2.9 3.3 2.0
Finnmark 9.6 6.4 2.4
Average for Norway 6.8 7.9 4.9

The very first emigrants from Nordland departed during the 1850s, but reliable figures are not available until 1867, when the police began registering all those who left the country. The lateness of emigration from the northern part of the country is due primarily to the fact that North Norway was itself looked upon as a colonizing district at the time.

The first emigrants from Brønnøy and Vik were two persons who left in 1866. No one emigrated from these communities the following year, but a dozen left from the neighboring district of Velfjord. In 1868 and 1869 came the departure of a surprising number of people, forty-eight and eighty respectively - most of them from the one community of Vik. Thus the emigration intensity in those two years rose to more than eleven per 1000 inhabitants.

A necessary precondition for such a vigorous beginning of the movement must have been that people in the communities were already well acquainted with the idea of emigration and with conditions in North America. Presumably a damming-up of potential emigrants had taken place over the years, and now the pressure was suddenly released. The emigrants from Brønnøy and Vik all left by way of Trondheim until near the end of the century. One might have expected that some of them would have gone with the Nordland fleet to Bergen; but this did not happen. To be sure, two emigrants from Brønnøy and Vik are listed in the Bergen protocols, but they had first registered their names in Trondheim.

By and large the emigration from Brønnøy and Vik corresponds with the movement from Nordland and rural Norway as a whole. There is, however, a great difference between the two communities. Two and a half times as many people left from Vik as from Brønnøy despite the fact that their economic conditions and population figures were about the same.

Economic developments during the period 1867-1900 are mirrored surprisingly well in the consumption of goods and the fishery conditions of the time. Mainly because of the fisheries, the district had advanced well into a cash economy. Research into such financial matters as bank deposits, liquidity, credit, auctions, and tax arrears yields very good economic indicators. These findings will be correlated with the emigration figures from Brønnøy and Vik. Nevertheless, primary emphasis will continue to be placed on the fisheries.

1868-1869: economic recession - heavy emigration. The 1860s had been afflicted with two or three catastrophic agricultural years, and each of the succeeding years was also hampered by insufficient supplies of seed potatoes and seed grain. Nor did the cod or feitsild fisheries do well. The abrupt outflow of emigrants in 1868 and 1869, when forty-eight and eighty persons left, indicates that there was a loss of confidence in economic conditions at home, a fact which would gain stimulus from reports about North America. And a pent-up force, which had been building over several years, was suddenly released when the American Civil War came to an end.

1870-1878: economic upswing - decreased emigration. The storsild created Klondike conditions along the Helgeland coast, and there were also very good years in the Lofoten fisheries. The boom period was marked by heavy investments and bank deposits in Brønnøy and Vik up to 1877. Possibly it is a bit bold to suggest that the seventeen emigrants who did leave around 1877 may have done so in response to the pessimism which spread after the disappearance of the storsild in 1874. Reports from the United States at the time did not encourage emigration, either, as a recession held sway there from 1873 until 1877.

It seems reasonable to assume that short-term loans went primarily to finance boats and fishing equipment, while long-term loans went to agriculture because of the greater security. If this is true, investment in boats and related equipment rose rapidly from 1873 until 1878 - with a slight drop in 1876. But 1876 was a brief interlude between the spectacular storsild epoch and the feitsild fishery. The increased investments at the time are indicative of a boom period.

1879-1885: average economic conditions - heavy emigration. During the 1870s a large number of people had evidently been considering emigration, but could not find any special reason for leaving while the fisheries were so good. However, when a comparatively heavy emigration did set in from Brønnøy and Vik, it followed the general pattern for the country as a whole.

Bank deposits had by then leveled off in Brønnøy and Vik. Yields from the Lofoten fisheries sank to two-thirds of what they had been during the 1870s. Likewise, the only feitsild fishery off Helgeland worthy of mention became a mere shadow of its former self during the years 1878-1886. The poorer fisheries also explain why there was a growing interest in agriculture. The average annual income of the fishermen of Brønnøy and Vik from the fisheries is shown below (in kroner):

Lofoten fishery
Finnmark fisher
Feitsild fishery

1886-1899: poor years - heavy emigration until 1893. During this period also, the emigration from Brønnøy and Vik largely paralleled that from the country as a whole; it declined greatly between 1893 and 1897 when the depression in the United States acted as a deterrent. It was the feitsild which brought income to the region during 1886-1888, and in 1891 practically the whole benefit from the good feitsild fishery was garnered by Brønnøy and Vik alone. Nevertheless, the years were on the poor side. Only the five-year period from 1886 to 1890 approached the average. The last decade of the century was very poor.

Correlation between emigration and economic conditions seems to hold fairly well up until 1885. Later the local picture becomes more clouded. Society assumed a more complex form and a variety of factors became intertwined, making it unclear even to the emigrants themselves which motives for leaving were the most persuasive. But the sum total of causes added up to discontentment with life as it was in the home community.

According to the police protocols, the emigrants from Brønnøy and Vik settled, by and large, in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The accuracy of the stated destinations may undoubtedly be questioned; but in general the information can be accepted as fairly reliable. If one ignores the emigrants who listed ports like New York, Boston, Quebec, and Chicago as their destination, it will be seen that newcomers went to places where friends and relatives from the home community had already settled. It is not mere coincidence that a little town like Montevideo, Minnesota, steadily attracted new recruits through the decades until about ten percent of all emigrants from Brønnøy and Vik were located there. Smaller groups were concentrated around Green Bay, Wisconsin (five percent); Baldwin, Wisconsin; and Fort Howard, Maryland. If larger areas of concentration are considered, no less than 60 percent of the emigrants settled within a radius of about 200 miles from Minneapolis.

Apparently good contact was maintained between the emigrants and relatives and friends in the home community. Not only did the America letters give information about the best methods of travel, but they also advised against coming at certain times. Thus the emigrant stream from Norway shrank to a mere trickle as soon as the depressions of 1873 and 1893 set in. The "pull" from North America must have been primarily responsible for the fact that more than twice as many people emigrated from Vik as from Brønnøy even though the two communities were so much alike. To quote Aadel Brun Tschudi: "Migration from an overpopulated area will not always cease as soon as the population pressure is reduced. It has a tendency to continue until the area is depopulated." This idea might be called "the snowball theory." It is not easy to put a stop to a migration movement through rational means the moment the population pressure has eased, especially when such forces as friendship, family connections, and personal ambitions are involved. The snowball theory fits the emigration pattern for Brønnøy and Vik very well; these forces made themselves felt immediately through America letters, prepaid tickets, and visits by Norwegian Americans to the home community.

The emigration from Brønnøy and Vik during the years 1867 to 1899, involving 700 people, did not differ in any essential respect from similar movements in the rest of' Norway. This "bloodletting" had certain consequences fur the two communities as it did for the country in general. The people who remained at home undoubtedly missed those who had gone. But, materially speaking, conditions improved somewhat because there were fewer competing fur the means of existence. Thus the emigration movement eased the pressure which had made itself felt in Brønnøy and Vik. In other words, there were more opportunities fur those who were left behind - even though the number of emigrants never equaled the natural population increase.

A majority of the emigrants were young people in their productive years who came from the lower rungs of' the social ladder. At home they might have become cotters, laborers, fishermen, or craftsmen. These were the only possibilities. Better educated than their fathers, they might well have secured some kind of work in the home community, but it is by no means certain that they would have been satisfied with this mode of existence after they had heard about conditions in America.

From the demographic point of view the emigration movement retarded the growth of population both directly and indirectly, since fewer people of marriageable age were left in the communities - especially in Vik, where the America fever took the greatest toll. It is difficult to know fur certain what population conditions in Brønnøy and Vik would have been had not the 700 emigrants left for America. Quite possibly the pressure of the surplus population would have been eased by greater use of the second safety valve - migration to Finnmark.

Be that as it may, the emigrants burned all bridges behind them and abandoned family, friends, home surroundings, and native land in the hope of winning a better future for themselves in North America.


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