Portuguese Empire

The Portuguese Empire (O Império Português) was, or is, one of the longest-lived colonial empires.


Flag of Portugal from 1485 to 1495

During the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, the Christian troops followed the Muslims further across the Mediterranean. In 1415, the Portuguese captured the Moorish port of Ceuta, marking the start of the Portuguese Empire. The Portuguese were pioneers in the Age of Exploration, discovering Volta do Mar (lit. "turn of the sea"), a system of ocean currents and prevailing winds in the Atlantic, and striving to improve their shipbuilding and seamanship skills in order to use it. The understanding of the trade winds, and the development of triangular sails capable of crosswind sailing, enabled Europeans to sail across oceans and establish global empires.

Portuguese discoveries and explorations: first arrival places and dates; main Portuguese spice trade routes (blue)

Inaugurated around 1433, the Sagres nautical school, sponsored by Prince Henry, the Navigator (Infante Dom Henrique, o Navegador, 1394-1460), promoted the maritime exploration of the Atlantic Ocean, which led to the discovery of the archipelagos of Madeira and Azores and the reaching of Greenland, Terra Nova, Lavrador and the west coast of Africa. The discovery of a passable route around Cape Bojador by Portuguese mariner Gil Eanes in 1434 was a major breakthrough for European seamanship, of almost mystical significance. After Prince Henry's death, his pupils continued to voyage further and further, enabling Portugal to begin a major chapter in world history with the New World Discoveries (Descobrimentos) and monopoly over trade between the Orient and Western Europe.

First, Portugal discovered and colonised the Madeira and Azores archipelagos. Explorer Bartolomeu Dias then became the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, and Vasco da Gama later pioneered the Cape Route to India. To consolidate imperial supremacy, Portugal established a chain of fortified military towns and trading outposts that eventually linked in Africa (Ceuta, Canary Islands, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, São Tomé e Príncipe, Zaire, Angola, Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Mozambique, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Malindi and Mogadishu), South America (Brazil, Caribbean, parts of Argentina and Uruguay), Asia (Hormuz, Goa, Bombay, Macau, Ceylon, Malacca, Phuket, Sumatra, East Timor, Flores, Moluccas , etc), and Oceania (Papua New Guinea), creating an empire covering most of the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and parts of the South China Sea and the southwestern Pacific Ocean.

A map from 1574 showing the 15 hereditary captaincy colonies of Brazil

The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, in which Portugal and Spain divided up the globe into half, awarded Portugal virtually all of the "Old World" as well as an eastern chunk of present-day Brazil (the line ran from Belém to Laguna in Santa Catarina). For this reason, the Spanish concentrated their efforts on the Western Hemisphere with explorers like Columbus and Magellan attempting to access India by sailing westwards, while Portugal initially largely got Africa and Asia for itself, and proceeded to colonize Brazil.

Additionally, after reaching Japan in the mid 16th century, Portuguese sailors explored vast areas of the Pacific Ocean resulting in 1571, the Japanese port city of Nagasaki being established by the Portuguese and local lords, to handle the new trade demand. The Portuguese also reached the northern part of what is today Taiwan in 1544, and named the island Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island), the name by which it was first known to Westerners. The Portuguese managed to colonise much of northern Taiwan, but this would be short lived due to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in 1580.

At the 1578 Alcácer-Quibir battle in present-day Morocco, Portugal suffered a tremendous defeat, and young king D. Sebastião was killed. For dynastic reasons, the empire was absorbed in the Spanish Empire, only regaining its independence on 1640.

A colonial war with the Dutch Republic from 1606 to 1663 ended with loss of influence in South America for the Dutch, in Southeast Asia for the Portuguese, and somewhat of a draw in Africa.

The Spanish and Portuguese empires in 1790

During the Napoleonic wars, the Portuguese royal family escaped on British warships to Brazil, setting up the Imperial capital in Rio de Janeiro. King D. João VI stayed until 1821.

The biggest colony, Brazil, became independent in 1822. Uniquely for South America, it became a monarchy, the Brazilian Empire, ruled by D. João VI's son D. Pedro I, who married archduchess Maria Leopoldina Habsburg, daughter of Austrian emperor Francis II, younger sister of future emperor Ferdinand I and Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, former wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. D. Pedro I returned to Portugal in 1831, to reign as D. Pedro IV, leaving behind his 5-year-old son D. Pedro II to rule Brazil.

The Portuguese empire endured a few decades longer than many other European empires. Goa, Diu, Damão, Dadra and Nagar Haveli were annexed by India in 1961. The Portuguese Colonial War, comprising wars in its African colonies, came to an abrupt end with the Carnation Revolution in 1974 when dissatisfied military officers revolted. Portugal lost the will to spend the necessary resources to maintain its colonial empire, and decided to grant independence to its colonies. Angola and Mozambique suffered from brutal civil wars before gaining stability as independent countries. A short civil war in East Timor was closely followed in 1975 by an Indonesian invasion and occupation that lasted until 1999. East Timor was then administered by a United Nations peacekeeping force before regaining independence in 2002.

Macau was returned to China in 1999, two years after British Hong Kong. This was the first and last European colony in East Asia. Today, the Azores and Madeira islands, at a notable distance from the European mainland, are part of Portugal as autonomous regions, so in a sense the empire still exists. As legacies of this empire, Portuguese culture, language, customs and cuisine, as well as Roman Catholicism, were spread globally, and Portugal itself continues to be home to large communities of Brazilians and Sub-Saharan Africans.


Map of Portuguese Empire

Portugal and nearby[edit]

  • 1 Lisbon. The imperial capital, right at the southwestern corner of mainland Europe, looking out towards the Atlantic from seven hills above the Tagus river. For a European city, it has seen very little destruction through warfare; instead, the city suffered one of the worst natural disasters in European history, the 1 November 1755 tsunami and aftershock. The Alfama district survived almost intact, though, and gives a glimpse of the past. Particularly, the Belém district offers many sights related to the imperial times: the Belém Tower, the Hieronymites Monastery with the tombs of explorer Vasco da Gama and poet Luís Vaz de Camões, the Mounument to the Discoveries, and the Maritime Museum. All are built in the Manuelino native late Gothic style, with nautical-themed ornaments and trimmings reflecting the imperial glory.
  • 2 Sintra. A historic mountainous town with many castles, including Sintra National Palace, the summer residence of the Portuguese kings.
The presumed former site of the Sagres nautical school
  • 3 Sagres (near Europe's southwesternmost point, in Algarve). Alleged location of the nautical school first developed by Prince Henry the Navigator in the early 1400s. In May 1587, Sir Francis Drake disembarked 800 men who assaulted the Sagres fortress. After two hours of intense combat, the fortress was destroyed and its artillery was pillaged. Nowadays, it's a beach destination with some nice churches, lighthouses and forts. The school itself has vanished. Sagres (Q926672) on Wikidata Sagres (Vila do Bispo) on Wikipedia
  • 4 Ceuta. Captured from the Moors in 1415, ceded to Spain in 1668, which holds it to this day.
  • 5 Madeira. One of Portugal's two autonomous regions in the Atlantic, discovered early in the 15th century. Nowadays the Garden in the Atlantic is a very popular tourist destination, especially to get away from the winter.
  • 6 Azores. Further out in the Atlantic, and indeed partially on the North American tectonic plate, the other autonomous region is composed of several islands. It's less touristy, and home to Portugal's highest summit, Pico.


  • 7 Labrador. Thinking of European powers exploring the corner of the world where the Vikings sailed half a millenium earlier, the Portuguese would likely not come to your mind first. But this province is named after João Fernandes Lavrador, who sailed these waters (and also the coast of Greenland) in 1498, and is supposed to have coloquially called the region Cá, nada ("there's nothing here").
  • 8 Newfoundland. In 1501 the brothers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real sailed by this island while looking for the Northwest Passage, and named it Terra Nova.


  • 9 Rio de Janeiro. Colonial capital from 1763, Imperial capital from 1808 to 1889. Rio de Janeiro (Q8678) on Wikidata Rio de Janeiro on Wikipedia
  • 10 Petrópolis (70 km north of Rio de Janeiro). The Brazilian Imperial summer capital, nestled among the forested hills of the Serra dos Órgãos, features D. Pedro II's summer palace - nowadays the Imperial Museum - and the beautiful St. Peter of Alcântara's cathedral, with the Bragança family's burial vault. It's also a popular summer holiday spot. Petrópolis (Q189043) on Wikidata Petrópolis on Wikipedia
  • 11 Museu do Ipiranga (Museu Paulista da Universidade de São Paulo), Parque da Independência, Ipiranga (São Paulo), +55 11 2065-8000. São Paulo's most important historical museum, about the Independence of Brazil, which reputedly happened at the very spot of the Independence Monument that in 1972, commemorating the event's 150th anniversary, received D. Pedro I's mortal remains. The museum and the surrounding park (Parque da Independência), after restoration, were reopened in time to commemorate 200 years of Independence on 7 September 2022. Museu Paulista (Q371803) on Wikidata Museu do Ipiranga on Wikipedia
  • 12 Salvador. The first colonial capital, from 1541 to 1763, features hundreds of colonial churches. Salvador (Q36947) on Wikidata Salvador, Bahia on Wikipedia
  • 13 Ouro Preto. The center of the gold mining colonial industry, today a beautiful destination, home to the best Brazilian colonial art. Ouro Preto (Q188905) on Wikidata Ouro Preto on Wikipedia
  • 14 Paraty. A then-secret harbor city for the shipment of gold to Europe, today a nice touristic town. Paraty (Q926729) on Wikidata Paraty on Wikipedia
  • 15 Olinda. Capital of the Pernambuco hereditary captaincy, it was famously pillaged and burnt down by the Dutch in 1631. Afterwards it lost importance to Recife, which became the provincial capital in 1827. Olinda (Q28301) on Wikidata Olinda on Wikipedia
Map of Mauritsstadt (Recife), 17th century
  • 16 Recife. Capital of the colony of New Holland from 1630 to 1654, under the name Mauritsstadt, after count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, governor from 1637 to 1644. Recife (Q48344) on Wikidata Recife on Wikipedia
  • 17 São Luís. Founded by the French in 1612, was conquered by the Portuguese in 1615. In 1641, the city was invaded by the Dutch, who left in 1645. São Luís (Q28441) on Wikidata São Luís, Maranhão on Wikipedia
  • 18 Rio Grande (Rio Grande do Sul). Created in 1737 as a military outpost for Portuguese expansion beyond the Tordesillas line, it became the first capital of a big province named after itself. Nowadays it's a big thriving harbor. Rio Grande (Q869571) on Wikidata Rio Grande, Rio Grande do Sul on Wikipedia


  • 19 Colonia del Sacramento. A preserved Portuguese tentative colony by the Rio de la Plata, today a charming and popular tourist destination. Colonia del Sacramento (Q56064) on Wikidata Colonia del Sacramento on Wikipedia

African west coast[edit]

  • 20 Cape Verde. Notable for Cidade Velha, the first European city in the tropics. The archipelago was used for slave trading, and as a point for resupplying ships.
  • 21 Guinea-Bissau. Portuguese Guinea was one of the first Portuguese colonies in sub-Saharan Africa – the Casa da Guiné managing it was established already in 1443. The old part of the capital, Bissau was built during colonial time. The city is also famous for Fortaleza de São José da Amura, nowadays containing the mausoleum of the leader of the anti-colonial movement Amílcar Cabral. Cacheu in the country's northwest used to be a notable slave trading point, nowadays the colonial fort is still there.
  • 22 São Tomé and Príncipe. These islands on the Equator were uninhabited until the arrival of the Portuguese, reportedly on 21 December 1471, St. Thomas' Day. A notable transit point for slaves, at one point 75% of Brazil's imports, mostly made up of slaves from the African mainland, passed through here. Nevertheless, from the 16th century on slaves had more rights here than in colonial empires generally before the 19th century. Aside of this, sugar and cocoa farming have been important industries. While one can find some colonial architecture here, the rather rural islands never had large cities or pompous buildings.
  • 23 Equatorial Guinea. The island of Bioko was named after Fernão do Pó, who landed here in 1472 when looking for a sea route to India. The Portuguese used the island for sugarcane farming. During the 1640s the Dutch East Indian Company had slave trading points here without the consent of the Portuguese. Finally the colony was traded to the Spanish in the 1778 Treaty of El Pardo in exchange for land in South America (enlargening present-day Brazil).
  • 24 Arguin Arguin on Wikipedia the Portuguese established a colony in 1448. The Dutch conquered the island in 1633, lost the island to the French in 1678, from which it was transferred to Brandenburg, then back to the French, and then briefly back to the Dutch again from 1722 to 1724. It's nowadays part of Mauritania, a former French colony.
  • 25 Angola. Loango-Angolakust (Loango-Angola Coast, better known as Dutch Loango-Angola) was a short-lived Dutch colony in modern-day Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and Angola. The colony was captured and controlled by the West India Company for seven years between 1641 and 1648.
    • 26 Luanda. Always the largest Portuguese African city and center of the southern slave trade, Luanda was of much strategic interest to the Dutch, who first attempted and failed to take the city and its fort in 1624. They succeeded later in 1641. The fort was then rebranded to Fort Aardenburgh. The West India Company continued the slave trade in the seven years it controlled the city. Portugal retook it in 1648.
    • 27 Benguela was also captured by the same effort as Luanda in 1641. It had a similar story to Luanda altogether.
    • 28 Cabinda is more of the same, though it is special in that the West India Company kept an agent here for the purpose of buying slaves until 1689.

African east coast[edit]

  • 29 Mozambique. When creating the Cape Route, the Portuguese set up forts, trading and resupplying points here, where the Arabs previously had established themselves. The first of these, Ilha de Mozambique, would become the capital of Portuguese East Africa. In the present day it's one of the best preserved colonial cities in Africa, and houses the oldest standing European building in the Southern Hemisphere, Capela de Nossa Senhora do Baluarte.
  • 30 Zanzibar, Tanzania - Zanzibar was visited by Vasco da Gama in 1498, by which time the archipelago was an established trading point with merchants from as far as Indonesia. A few years later, the Portuguese demanded and got tribute from the sultan, and Zanzibar became part of the Portuguese Empire. They didn't establish themselves as firmly as in other colonies (although they built a fort on Pemba Island), and in 1698 the Omanis who had defeated the Portuguese everywhere along the Central East African coast set up the Sultanate of Zanzibar. Zanzibar would later come under British rule.
  • 31 Mombasa, Kenya - Likewise an established city by the time of the arrival of the Europeans, in the 1590s the Portuguese built a fortification named Fort Jesus, later in use by Arabs and the British until 1958 and one of the city's most notable sights today.
  • 32 Malindi, Kenya - In Mombasa's main rival, visited by Chinese explorer Zheng He some 80 years earlier, da Gama received a warmer welcome. For the 16th century Malindi became one of the main trading and supply posts on the Cape Route, and Malindi and the Portuguese were allies against other powers in the region. In 1593 the Portuguese moved their regional capital to Mombasa they had conquered, and Malindi declined.

Middle East[edit]

  • 33 Bahrain. The Portuguese ruled Bahrain from 1521 to 1602. During that time they built Forte de Barém, today's Bahrain Fort, on the site of the capital of the prehistorical Dilmun civilization. Today it's a world heritage listed archaeological excavation site and "Bahrain's most important site in antiquity".
  • 34 Oman. Oman was colonized by the Portuguese during the 16th and 17th centuries. They founded the city of Khasab and held Muscat from 1507 to 1650 (with a few interruptions), and as such there are forts, watchtowers and other buildings from that era in the capital.

South Asia[edit]

Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Old Goa
  • 35 Old Goa (Velha Goa) (North Goa, India). From 1510, was the administrative seat of Portuguese India. Due to malaria and cholera epidemics in the 17th century, the viceroy moved to Panjim (Ponnjê in Konkani, Nova Goa in Portuguese, Panaji in Hindi) in 1759, and the old capital was largely abandoned in 1775. In 1843, Panjim was made the official capital. Nowadays Old Goa is a beautiful old town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Old Goa (Q553907) on Wikidata Old Goa on Wikipedia
  • 36 Margao (Madgaon, Margão) (South Goa, India). Goa's cultural and commercial capital, a very busy city and railroad junction with many sights, like the Mercado de Afonso de Albuquerque (city market), the Câmara Municipal (city hall) and the municipal garden lying in front of it, named after benefactor Prince Aga Khan, Fonte Anna (natural springs), Mercado Velho (old market), Holy Spirit Church, grand colonial mansions such as the Seven Gables House, and the Monte chapel. Margao (Q515117) on Wikidata Margao on Wikipedia
  • 37 Kozhikode (Calicut) (Kerala, India). The port where explorer Vasco da Gama made his thunderous entrance in the history of the Indian subcontinent, on 20 May 1498, capturing the city keen on opening the Lisbon-Malabar trade route. A Portuguese factory was built, and stood until 1525. The English landed in 1615 (constructing a trading post in 1665), followed by the French (1698) and the Dutch (1752). Kozhikode (Q28729) on Wikidata Kozhikode on Wikipedia
  • 38 Mumbai (Bombaim, Bombay) (Maharashtra, India). Surrendered to the empire on 1535, this strategic harbor was placed in possession of the British Empire on 11 May 1661, as part of the dowry of Catarina de Bragança, daughter of Portuguese king João IV, on the occasion of her marriage to Charles II of England. history of Bombay under Portuguese rule (Q5775344) on Wikidata History of Bombay under Portuguese rule (1534–1661) on Wikipedia
  • 39 Diu (south of Gujarat, India). A fishing town, with a similar history to Goa, in the possession of the Portuguese from 1535 until 1961, noted for its old fortress, Portuguese cathedral, and nice old town with a Portuguese layout. Diu Island (Q5283744) on Wikidata Diu Island on Wikipedia
  • 40 Hooghly (Ugulim) (West Bengal, India). In 1536, Portuguese traders obtained a permit from Bengali Sultan Mahmud Shah to trade in this area. In 1579–80, Mughal Emperor Akbar gave permission to Portuguese captain Pedro Tavares to establish a city anywhere in Bengal. They chose Hooghly and it became the first European settlement in Bengal. Within a few decades, Hooghly became a major commercial centre and the largest port in Bengal. In 1629, political disorder struck the city and the Mughal governor of Bengal expelled the Portuguese. Bandel (Q629006) on Wikidata Bandel on Wikipedia

Southeast Asia[edit]

  • 41 Malacca (Malaysia). Fell to the Portuguese on 24 August 1511 after a war with the local sultan. A fortress (A Famosa ,"the famous one") was constructed, encompassing a hill lining the edge of the seashore, on the former site of the sultan's palace (its front gate still stands). On the top of a hill near A Famosa, you can find the ruins of the Church of Saint Paul, a Roman Catholic church that was built under Portuguese rule, and at one point was the resting place of the famous Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier. After a colorful history, A Famosa was conquered by the Dutch East India Company with their local allies on 14 January 1641. Malacca is also home to a Portuguese Settlement, where descendants of Portuguese colonisers who married the local Malays live, and some continue to speak a distinctive Portuguese-based creole. Portuguese Malacca (Q2988343) on Wikidata Portuguese Malacca on Wikipedia
  • 42 East Timor. The former Portuguese colony declared itself independent from Portugal on 28 November 1975. Nine days later, Indonesian forces invaded and occupied, spending two and a half decades on "pacification efforts". On 20 May 2002, East Timor was internationally recognized as an independent state. It has the distinction of being the only Asian country completely inside the Southern Hemisphere, as well as being one of the two Asian countries with a Roman Catholic majority (the other is the Philippines, a former Spanish colony). East Timor (Q574) on Wikidata East Timor on Wikipedia
  • 43 Ambon (Maluku, Indonesia). Originally named Nossa Senhora de Anunciada, the present Spice Islands' provincial capital was founded in 1526 by Portuguese-Moluccan Governor Sancho de Vasconcelos, and seized by the Dutch in 1609. Among its many interesting historical and cultural sites are the remnants of several Dutch colonial forts, and ruins of the Portuguese fort at Hila, almost entirely hidden beneath the contorted roots of a giant banyan tree. Ambon City (Q18970) on Wikidata Ambon, Maluku on Wikipedia
  • 44 Banda Islands (Maluku, Indonesia). The original habitat of the Myristica fragrans tree, from which seeds mace and nutmeg are extracted. First colonized by the Portuguese, were later wrested by the Dutch. Dutch Malacca (Q949314) on Wikidata Banda Islands on Wikipedia
  • 45 Ende (Flores, Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia). The lazy capital of "Flowers' Island", a Portuguese possession from 1511 to 1854. There are nice old Portuguese forts nearby, accessible by motor boat. Ende (Q1340301) on Wikidata Ende (town) on Wikipedia
  • 46 Makassar (Sulawesi, Indonesia). Strategically important as a collecting point for the produce of eastern Indonesia: copra, rattan, pearls, trepang, sandalwood and the famous "Macassar oil" made from bado nuts used in Europe as men's hairdressing. Arabs, Malays, Thai and Chinese came here to trade. From the 1540s, it hosted a Portuguese naval base until its conquest by the Dutch East India Company in 1667. Its central sight nowadays is Fort Rotterdam, an old Dutch colonial fortress. Makassar City (Q14634) on Wikidata Makassar on Wikipedia

East Asia[edit]

Portuguese remains an official language in Macau, alongside Chinese.
  • 47 Macau (across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong). In the 16th century, China gave Portugal the right to settle in Macau in exchange for clearing the area of pirates. Macau was the first and last European colony in East Asia, and though it was returned to China in 1999, it retains a blend of Portuguese and Chinese culture: crowds of men play mahjong next to Christian cemeteries, and Macanese eat at Portuguese restaurants near Taoist temples. Nowadays Macau is more famous as a gambling destination, but don't miss the chance to stroll through the old city and admire the colonial architecture, which has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Portuguese were also major players in the tea trade between China and Europe, along with the Dutch and the Russians, and Macau was the main port where Portuguese merchants shipped their tea from; as a result, the Portuguese word for tea is chá, which was originally derived from Cantonese, the local language of Macau, making it noticeably different from the word in most other Western European languages. Macau (Q14773) on Wikidata Macau on Wikipedia
  • 48 Nagasaki (Kyushu, Japan). A small fishing village set in a secluded harbor with little significance, until contact with Portuguese explorers in 1543. After that, it quickly grew into a bustling and diverse port city. Portuguese products (such as tobacco, textiles, bread and pastries) here were first disembarked and assimilated into popular Japanese culture. Nagasaki was also the birthplace of the famous Japanese dish tempura, whose preparation was based on a Portuguese deep frying technique. Nagasaki (Q38234) on Wikidata Nagasaki on Wikipedia


Largo do Senado, Macau. At a first glance you may not think the photo was taken in East Asia.

Like other European empires, the Portuguese brought some architectural elements with them — for example the calçada portuguesa, or Portuguese pavement where darker and lighter stones are laid out in patterns to form pictures or patterns like waves. Another element of Portuguese architecture that spread throughout the colonial empire was the distinctive blue and white ceramic tiles.

Eat and drink[edit]

See also: Brazilian cuisine

During imperial times, the Portuguese brought ingredients and dishes overseas to Portugal, the colonizers brought some with them to the colonies, and culinary interchange also happened between individual colonies in different parts of the world (for example spices between tropical Asia and Americas).

For example the Portuguese pastry pastel de nata and cabidela (chicken cooked in its blood with rice) can be found in former Portuguese colonies. Vindaloo which is part of the Goan cuisine and popular worldwide is based on the Madeiran dish carne de vinha d'alhos (meat in garlic marinade), and several dishes in the Brazilian cuisine have their origins in Africa. In Macau, Portuguese cuisines was blended with Cantonese culinary traditions to give rise of the distinctive Macanese cuisine, which is most popular among the Macanese ethnic group (people of mixed Portuguese and Chinese heritage).

In Japan, Portuguese Catholics brought their cooking method of battering and deep-frying of seafood through Nagasaki. The cuisine was soon popularized in Japan as Tempura, and other ingredients like vegetables and meat. The term may derive from the Portuguese words tempero, "seasoning", or têmpora, the period when Catholics are required to fast and abstain from eating meat (but not seafood).

See also[edit]

Other colonial empires[edit]

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