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The Marsh Fog and the Sea Breeze

by Harriet Martineau

Household Words: A Weekly Journal, vol. 3, issue 55 (1851)

Pages 53-58

A sample page from The Marsh Fog and the Sea Breeze by Harriet Martineau

NOTE: This entry is in draft form; it is currently undergoing the VSFP editorial process.

Introductory Note: “The Marsh Fog and the Sea Breeze” was published by Harriet Martineau in Charles Dickens’s Household Words in 1851. The story follows a young girl growing up in a small fishing village during the Napoleonic Wars. It is both a coming of age story and social commentary, as Martineau explores the unique economic effects of war on working-class families.

Serial Information

This entry was published as the first of two parts:

  1. The Marsh Fog and the Sea Breeze (1851)
  2. The Marsh Fog and the Sea Breeze, Part 2 (1851)


            The mere mention of French prisoners brings back, full and clear before my mind, the details of one of the most memorable days of my childhood. I never knew exactly how old I was. Nobody ever told me; and I do not remember that any one ever asked me: so that I never inquired; and I doubt whether my poor mother ever had such an idea in her head as the number or name of the year. She could count as far as twenty, because our fish were sometimes reckoned by scores; but I doubt whether she ever heard of hundreds of anything. So that if I had asked her, she would only have said that I was two years younger than my brother Jos, or five years older than the baby. At a guess, however, I should say that I was about six when the French prisoners were removed from the barracks on the moor. At that time, it seemed to me very long indeed—so far back as scarcely to be remembered—when my “Dad,” as I have ever called him, used to put his hot, greasy hat over my head and face, so that I was frightened and cried, and stamped. One thing more he did, which made me hide myself behind the boat, or in the house. He pretended to be “Bony.”1Napoleon Bonaparte. I did not know what Bony was; but I knew it must be something very dreadful, by the faces that Dad made, and the roar that he gave, when he said he was Bony. One day, when he was not thinking of me, he told my mother that Bony was coming; and that there were to be great fires all along the coast when he came. In my agony at hearing this, I threw myself down in the sand, and rolled. I suppose that the sight softened my mother’s heart, for she pulled my father by the sleeve, while she called me to her, and let me hide my face in her lap. When I looked up, my father was laughing; so I ventured to ask him what he would do if Bony came.

“What would I do?” said he, taking the cork out of his tin bottle, and lifting it to his lips. “Why, I would ask him to take a sup out of my can.”

This was a great relief to me, for it gave me the notion that Bony was a man; a thing which I did not know before.

It must have been soon after this that the terrible night came when my Dad was carried away by the pressgang. I was less afraid of the pressgang than of Bony, because I knew something of what it was. A young man from our hamlet had been seized by them, and I saw them in the boat as they went away, and thought they looked very much like other people in boats. But yet it was terrible when I woke from my sleep, frightened or uncomfortable. I was sometimes very hot and stifled, and sometimes very cold: and I had bad dreams; and now and then, on winter nights, the sea would come roaring and dashing almost to the very door: and Dad would get up, or make my mother get up, and see how high the water was coming, or whether the tide had turned: and it frightened me to feel the wind rush in when she opened the door, or to see the foam dancing about in the dim light of the lantern, almost on the very threshold: but no fright had ever been like that of the night when Dad was carried away. There were growling voices outside; and one loud, and clear, and commanding: and my Dad swore more terribly than I had ever heard him before, though I believe he swore about something or other every day. My mother’s crying was the worst. She cried aloud, so that it took my breath away. I do not think I cried at all; nor did Jos. He had been asleep beside me, under the folds of the hot, heavy old sail that was our bed. He was now sitting up in his ragged little blue shirt, with his eyes all bright, when nobody stood between him and the lantern, and his face all white and fixed. The pressgang did not stay very long; and when they were gone, my mother threw herself down on her face on her bed, and cried and moaned, without ever thinking of shutting the door; so that the wind blew in, and the door swung about; and then baby began to cry sharply. Jos and I wondered whether we dared get up and shut the door. At last, we slipped out from under the sail, and ran and did it together. Then we took up baby, and rocked him to sleep; and I suppose after that we went to sleep again ourselves; for I remember nothing more about that night.

I am ashamed now to think (and yet I do not see how we could help it) how pleasant the next morning was, and many more mornings. Jos and I played about, without being afraid of anything. Nobody gave us knocks on the head: nobody made faces and roared like Bony; nobody swore at us. It is true, we had not now the fearful pleasure of helping to push off the boat, that Dad might go to sea, and not come back the whole day. It was a fearful pleasure, because, when my mother sent us to help push the boat off, it was a chance whether Dad did not kick us out of his way; but he sometimes was kind, and put his great hand over mine, to make believe that I did the pushing; and then, he always went away, further and further out to sea; and it would be many hours before he came back again. Now, it could no longer be so. Our boat lay upside down on the sand. Sometimes the sun shone hot upon it, so that what paint there was left rose in blisters, and sealed off: and sometimes the rain poured down upon it, and we got under it,—Jos and I, and the baby. We liked to be there, snug on the dry sand, when the rain did not last too long. We liked to hear the rain pelt over our heads; and it was a better shelter than the cottage, because the thatch there was so bad that the rain was always coming through. The smell was so bad, too! The thatch was worse than all others put together. It rotted, and dropped in pieces, sometimes in the house, and sometimes outside; and the bits that were not full of vermin were mouldy, and sickening to come near. So Jos and I liked the boat, and were glad it was now never stirred; though my mother cried sometimes when she looked at it, and said we were little fools to sit laughing there, when no bread came out of the boat any more.

After a time, the boat came to be used again; but never at hours when I could help to push it off. Jos and I used to find it wet in the morning; and my mother said it had been out trading. She did not bid us be secret about this trading; because we knew nobody except the children belonging to four or five other cottages, like our own; and the families who lived there traded too. I doubt whether the grown people knew that there was anything wrong about their way of trading; and I am sure the children did not. My mother took me to sleep with her, and put the goods under the sail, which was still Jos’s bed. Jos’s bed looked all the handsomer for being raised by the packages beneath it; but he did not like it so well; and when our hut was very full of goods, used to steal out, and sleep on the sand, under the boat.

It is best to speak plainly, I think, that there may be no secret about how some people live. The truth, then, is, that I was never, really never, in a state of bodily ease, owing to the dirt in which we lived. I did not know this at the time. I first became aware of it in after years, when those changes had occurred which caused me to become clean in my person. I am not quite sure that there was never an hour of my childhood in which my skin was not irritated so as to make me more or less cross, or restless, or low—spirited; and this was not the worst. If I had not headache, or some distinct pain somewhere within my body (which was very often the case), I was always suffering from a feeling of heaviness, or weakness, or of indistinct uneasiness of my whole frame—miserable feelings which I now know to belong to an unwholesome state of the skin. It seems to me now, that Jos and I were never really clean. We often dabbled in the sea—water, up to the knees and elbows; but this only made the salt stick upon the fish oil that had covered our skins first, and made its way into every pore. Our clothes were fishy; our hair was fishy, rough and tangled; our eyes smarted with the salt that seemed to gather upon us from the air and the earth, as well as the water. My breath felt hot; my sleep was troubled: though sometimes grievously wanting food, I seldom relished what I ate; and it was seldom that I felt light and gay. I suppose it was because everybody about us felt the same, from living in the same way, that nobody complained. In our little hamlet, there was no cottage where the floor was clean, and the building wholesome; where the clothes were washed with soap, or people’s skin knew the comfort of soft water, and of being made pure, and flexible, and comfortable, by its pores being open, and the circulation of the blood free and easy. If any one household had been in this happy natural state of health, others might have learned the lesson; and I have in my own mind no doubt that they might have enjoyed an amount of ease and good spirits, and cheerfulness of temper, which would have been of more consequence to their happiness than money, or any of the good luck that they complained of the want of. They used to sit on the half-putrid sands, the women as well as the men drinking spirits because they felt weak and low, and saying that there was no use in catching fish when there was nobody to buy it. That there was no market for their fish was, they felt, a hardship.

Almost the only customers we had had for fish, for a longer time than I could remember, were the French prisoners at the barracks on the moor. It was only the cheapest sorts of fish that they wanted; but they took enough to give Jos and me many a walk to the barracks. In the pilchard-season, my mother went with us sometimes; pilchards were so cheap, and the poor fellows wanted so many more than we children could carry. When we carried fresh mackarel, they used to be on the watch at the rails, and beckon, and call, and make signs so eagerly, that it was droll to see. They were very knowing, too, about whitings and haddocks; but the red herrings were the wonder to us. I never knew any people care so much for red herrings; and surely no other people in England made red herring go so far. Instead of eating their allowance of bread as people usually do, they used to make it into soup. Or, if they could get a little pearly-barley or barley-meal, they would stew it and stew it, till the water really looked as thick as soup; and then they would make balls or little dumplings of their bread, crumbled with some morsels of red herring, minced as fine as pins’ heads; and when these were set swimming in the soup, the poor fellows used to look as satisfied as if a piece of roast beef was before them. Now and then I stood to see them eat their dinner, and I dare say there might be some wonder in my face, or perhaps I was munching a piece of dry bread, at the time; for they used to smile at me, and lay their hands on their stomachs with a pleased look, to make me understand that their soup had done them good. Certainly it looked and smelled very good; and the biggest man seemed, after one basonful, to have had as much as they could eat; but when we told our mother about it, she used to give us each a bit of bread, and divide a herring between us, and say it was just the same thing which way we ate it, and she saw no use in the trouble of stewing. I did long to try sometimes, when I was almost as hungry as ever after dinner; and there was always a fire of driftwood burning on the sands, and I could have managed with our iron pot: but my mother said she would not have us go near the fire. We often did, however, when she was busy elsewhere. I have roasted a potato in that sly way many a time, though I never could be sure of time enough to try the experiment of stewing my bread.

One day, when Jos had been up the moor, he brought home two plovers’ eggs; and we roasted them, and got behind the rock to eat them. I do not remember that we were at all ashamed of such sly doings, or that we ever had any shame about anything; but I do remember, heartily, the goodness of those eggs, and how I used to dream, almost every night, of finding plovers’ eggs on the moor. We were often missing for hours, Jos and I, while out on this hunt; but we tried for so many months in vain, that we grew tired, and gave it up. We were so very ignorant as to not know that the eggs of wild birds are not to be found all the year round.

One day, the news spread that the French prisoners were going away. They were to be moved higher up the country; because it was thought that Bony was really coming at last, after having been talked of so long; and it was not safe to have any Frenchmen so near the coast as that he might let them out of prison, and have them for soldiers. We were all very sorry at first about their going. The grown people said there would be nobody now to buy any fish; and the children had liked the amusement of seeing them cook, and cut pretty toys with their knives out of common meat bones; and also of hearing their talk to each other, which sounded a curious jabber to us. I cried desperately because my mother would not let me go to see them off. As I said at the beginning, the day of their departure was among the most remarkable of all my childhood. But my mother had some trading to do, and she wanted us to help. She had known for some time that the soldiers were coming to the barracks, after which the secret trading—in plain words, smuggling—would be difficult, if not impossible to manage. But few days more of comparative liberty remained, before the soldiers would be coming down to watch and defend the coast against the French; and of these few days, the most favourable was that when all eyes—even those of the Preventive Service men—would be fixed on the departure of the prisoners.

I well knew what my share of the day’s work would be; —a dull one enough. I happened to have remarkably good sight; a gift which is highly valued on the coast. If few or none of my other powers were trained, that one was. My father had had it when he was young; but I believe his spirit-drinking had spoiled it. He could neither see so far as I could with the natural sight, nor fix a glass steadily, for some time before he was carried away; and he used to put me between his knees, and make me count the sails out at sea, and find out when anybody was in the marsh, or coming down from the moor. Now I knew I should have to watch while the smuggling sloop was creeping in, under the shore, and while our boat was stealing out to meet her; and while the goods were landed. It was a favourable day for the business, but all the more dull for me, from its being a calm sea fog. As I sat on the rock which rose behind our cottage to the height of forty feet or so, I could see pretty clearly over the dark moor, and could just make out the barracks, with the crowd collected there: but I could see no sail on the water, and had lost sight of the bows of our own boat, while I could still see neighbor Glassford, who was steering her, sitting in the stern. I could hear the dipping of the oars, after he had disappeared; and when they were returning from the sloop, I knew it by the dipping of the oars again. I did not see the sloop at all; but I knew she must have been very near,—not only because the boat came back so soon, but because I am sure I heard the murmur of voices, careful as smugglers are to speak low while about their business.

After the second return of the boat, I could see through the fog the dim figures, moving like spectres, of my mother and Jos below that rock, carrying in the goods, no doubt. It was very dull on my perch, looking out upon nothing at all; so I thought I would go down and help. Before I had taken the first step down, I fancied I heard something very sweet—far, far, away. Then I lost it; and then it came again,—some music, swelling gently on the still air. It was military music. In straining my sight, I saw something red on the dark moor, beyond the barracks. It was near noon now; and there was some break in the fog which allowed the sun to touch the furthest ridges; and in a minute or two, I saw a little flash. The soldiers, with their bayonets, were certainly coming to the barracks almost before the Frenchmen were gone. I skipped down the rock to tell my mother this. I hoped she would let me bustle about and help her, as the soldiers would so soon be down upon us; and she did let me carry in some large loaves, with a hard crust, which I knew well enough had little crumb within, but plenty of silk stockings. We ranged the brown loaves on the shelf; and then Jos and I hung a great net about a square package of silks, and doubled it over, so that anybody would have sworn that we had a pile of nets in the corner. A small barrel was packed with ribbons, with a layer of cod sounds at the top. The tobacco went into holes under the floor, under a loose plank. My mother was puzzling her brain to find a place for the largest package of all,—a bale too big to go under her bed, or look like any article of furniture, when a faint gleam of sunshine touched the floor, through the dim pane of glass which was our only window.

“There, go, child!” said my mother giving me a push to the door. “We shall be caught because you won’t mind your watch. Now, hold your tongue about the fog. ‘Tis noon, and the fog is breaking away. If the boat does not come quick, the sea will be clear. There, go, and keep a look-out.”

She thrust a piece of bread and a lump of cheese into my hand, and put her gin-bottle to my mouth, giving me a sup which almost strangled me. I think she must have been paid for her services partly in the gin which came over with every batch of goods; for however hungry and ragged we might be, there seemed to be always plenty of gin on the shelf. I ran up the rock, rather giddy, and sat down to sober myself with my bread and cheese. The music was playing again—sweet and lulling from so great a distance. The sun was coming out warm. Where the fog had flaked away, the calm sea was glittering. The sloop was bending away from the land, and the boat was fast making for the beach. I was very sleepy; and I should have been fast asleep in another minute but for the usual noonday plague,—the multitude of flies, which were one of the worries of my life. I know now that they were one of the punishments of our own dirt. I have seen many dirty places since swarming with flies; but I never saw anything to compare with the myriads that teased us, almost the whole year round. The offal on the shore was covered with black clouds of them; and so was the cleanest looking sand; for the fact was, the sand itself was poisoned. As for ourselves, we let them cover us when we were awake and busy; but they would not let us go to sleep. I was now fighting with them, somewhat passionately, when I suddenly discovered that they had done us a very great service, by keeping me awake.

My heavy eyes were struck with the sight of two red coats on the marsh, where few coats of any colour were ever seen. This marsh was a long stretch of shore, into which the sea flowed twice a day, leaving it fit for no purposes, for either land or sea. It was possible, for those who knew it as well as Jos and I did, to cross it. We knew where the rock came up, here and there, to afford a foothold, and could skip through it in pretty good time, as much as we saw the whinchat hop from stone to stone. But it was never with my mother’s good-will that we went into it. It was not only dangerous for young children, from being plashy and spongy, and with a considerable depth of bog in some places, but few people went into it—at least in the warm months of the year—without being ill afterwards. This was the real reason why the townspeople at the inner end of it got no fish, while we got no custom. In that town of Dunridge there were (as I have since seen) whole courts and alleys full of poor people, who would have feasted cheaply on pilchards and mackerel in the season; and gentry, who were always wishing for cod, and soles, and whitings, but could never get any; while, on the other side of the marsh, we were burying whole cart-loads of fish, because we could not sell them while they were good. The gentry got such as they chose to have from more distant places, and the poor went without, and we had no sale—all on account of this foul tract of waste land. My mother used to say, that all the illness we ever had was caught there; and the doctors at Dunridge said nearly the same of the sickness in the town. If the wind blew into the town from the marsh side, the doctors were sure to be busy; and at last, as the bog grew deeper, and the salt made a thicker crust upon the stones, and the slime of rotting weeds was more offensive , and the osprey hovered more frequently in that part of the sky, showing that there was animal death below, people left off crossing the marsh altogether, for such an object as buying or selling fish. Jos and I could not always resist the temptation of going to play there. We liked to blow the thistle-down, and to pull out the marsh-cotton from its catkins; and to get bundles of rushes; and to look for gaping mussels and crawling crabs on the slime, while the sea-gulls were wheeling over our heads. We did not remember till the headache and sickness came, that they would be sure to come after that particular frolic. After this account, any one may understand how strange it was to me to see two soldiers in the marsh.

They were picking their way, striding or hopping from one bit of rock to another, but certainly tending towards me. I was wide awake in a moment, and saw that it would not do to let them come within sight of our smuggling transactions. I gave the childish sort of whoop which was our concerted signal. Jos popped up his head.

“Soldiers!” said I. “Make haste, Jos; I’ll go, and lead them out on the moor.”

When once children have tasted the pleasure of misleading grown people, they are, perhaps, more sly than their elders. I well remember the satisfaction with which I now set forth to mislead the soldiers. No peewit on the moor could more cleverly entice away the stranger from her nest of young, than I now set about diverting these red-coats from the place where my mother was in sore dread of visitors. I slipped down upon the marsh, and turned north, when the strangers went south-east. When they saw me stooping, and apparently busy gathering the stiff stalks of the salt-lavender, they called, and for some time I pretended not to hear them. At last I turned, and then I hopped and skipped towards them readily enough. They asked me if I was not afraid that Bony would catch me, if I came so far from home. This frightened me very much; but I said I did not think Bony was anywhere here. They told me that if he was not here now, he would be very soon, and that they had come to prevent Bony catching little girls and boys. I asked how they were going to prevent it, and they told me that they were come to live at the barracks; that some of them would always be keeping watch on the rocks, or along the hills, and that they were to make great fires, that might be seen many miles off, whenever Bony should make his appearance. They wanted now to find a convenient place, the top of some rock, where such a fire might be made; and to see how good a path could be made along the shore, without interruption, that soldiers might always be walking and watching, and that the townspeople might feel safe. I promised to show them a very fine rock, where they might make a big fire, if they would follow me; and I turned towards the moor; but the strangers were so perverse that they would look along the coast first. They did not mind getting wet, I saw; they were so earnest in examining the place. They consulted together, and looked about, and went to the edge, where the wet part became a quicksand on the beach; and I gathered that they thought that by some means the swamp must be made passable. At last, my rock caught their attention; and nothing would serve them but they must go up it. I wanted now to slip away, and run round below to give warning; but they took me between them to show them the way, as they said, and amused themselves by swinging me over the muddy places, till in a few minutes we were all on the rock. The moment I obtained my release, I shot away homewards. It was a great relief to me to find my mother sitting before the door, mending a net, and Jos cleaning out the boat in a harmless sort of way; for the soldiers were peeping down upon us from above, and nothing could pass without their seeing it.

“Why, here is a village,—a fishing village!” we heard one of them say. When they came down, they asked me why I did not tell them there was a village here; to which I replied that they found they could see it for themselves. They shook their heads with great gravity; told my mother that I had pretended to come from the town, and that they were afraid I was in partnership with “Bony.” They asked my mother if that was her husband’s boat; and when they had heard the sad story about my father, they went up to Jos, who was still in the boat, and asked him if he had brought home anything.

“Here, look,” cried my mother; “if you want any lobsters, here are some now just out of the boat.”

“Lobsters,” said one of them. “Ah! that’s good. Let’s see your lobsters.”

My mother produced some which she had, two days before, despaired of selling.

“Why, they are as red as we are!” cried the soldiers. “Do you think we don’t know fresh lobsters from boiled?”

My mother coolly protested that the boat had not been back an hour, and that the lobsters were just out of it: two assertions which were literally true; for the lobsters had been offered for sale on board the smuggler, and not received. I heard the strangers say to each other that they had got among a parcel of cheats, and that they never had been fixed in such a neighborhood. The town was full of beggars; the country was moor or swamp, and this filthy village seemed a good match for the rest.

By this time, the fishermen’s wives began to show themselves from their respective houses; some bringing out fish for sale, and all carefully shutting their doors behind them. Most or all would willingly have cheated; but one or two had sense to perceive that the soldiers knew fresh fish from stale. They bought a little; examined the situation of the hamlet thoroughly, expressed their disgust at the dell which stretched back from the cottages, between the rocks, and disappeared at the further end of it. This dell might have been very pretty; and a stranger now and then, coming upon it from behind, pronounced that it was very pretty: but it would not bear a second look. Heaps of garbage lay there; and it was so overstrewn with the dirt of every sort that was thrown there by everybody, that only patches of the natural green of its really good soil showed themselves in places. Many a load of unsaleable fish was cast out there, to save the trouble of burying it in the sands.

In the evening, down came two officers from the barracks, evidently directed by our visitors of the morning. The lieutenant carried a glass; and long and careful was their survey of the points of the coast, and then, their gaze out to sea.

“There are four of them,” said I; “and two more south-west.”

“Four what?” asked the lieutenant, fixing his glass again.

“Four sail to the south-east,” said I.

“There’s only three,” declared Bill Oulton, positively, coming up breathless, to obtain his share of the stranger’s notice.

“There are four,” I protested. “Two brigs . . .”

“To be sure,” Bill put in; “two brigs and a schooner.”

“And further out,” I declared, “so that I can see only her topsails, there is a large ship.”

I appealed to the lieutenant to know whether it was not so. He handed his glass to his companion, owning that he could not see one. Neither could the ensign; and this seemed to us very odd. We did not know that it requires practice to see all that the human eye may perceive out at sea. A neighbour, old Glassford, of long experience, was called; and he declared me to be right, owning that he doubted whether any eyes in the place but mine would have found out the fourth sail, without being told where to look. The officers praised my eyesight, and said they must take me into the service; and then, if I would tell them when Bonaparte was coming, they would fight him for me. I had never heard the name at full length before; and while I was puzzling about it, Glassford ventured to correct the officers, telling them that he supposed they came from some way inland, but that we on the coast, who must know best about the enemy, called him Bony. The officers laughed and hoped the wise men on the coast would fight him as well as the soldiers, whatever they called him. They asked me if I would have a little red coat, and enter into the service; to which I answered that I had something else to do than to go amongst people who could not see what was before their eyes.

“What have you to do? Do you catch fish?”

“To be sure I do.”

“Does she?” they asked of our neighbour.

“A little matter of shrimping, perhaps,” he said, with a patronising smile.

The officers asked me if I would get some shrimps for their breakfast the next morning. As the tide would serve, I readily promised to do so. They desired me to bring them to the barracks alive, because they did not want curious shrimps that were caught ready boiled. We might be very clever in catching red lobsters; but they preferred the blue sort, and shrimps all alive. By this I knew that the soldiers had put them on their guard against us.

They afterwards examined every cottage on the outside, and asked some questions about the stones on the beach, and the rocks above. They borrowed a hammer, and knocked off some bits of the rock. They made faces at the dell behind, but asked for a spade, and, with their own hands, dug a spit here and there. They counted the men and boys in the place; or, rather, they tried to do so, but could get no true answers—so afraid were all that they were somehow connected with the pressgang. They were exceedingly surprised to find that we knew no more about Dunridge and its people than if the town had been a hundred miles off. They pitied the townspeople for having no fish, and ordered some for their own table. Their chief surprise, however, was to find that we had no vegetables, except when a cargo of potatoes now and then came by sea. As we had none ourselves, we could not help them to any. Certainly, their notions of things were very different from ours; so much so, that as soon as they were out of hearing, my mother and the neighbours agreed that they wished those might be real British soldiers, after all, and not some sort of pressgang, or people belonging to Bony. As for me, I felt as if something great was going to happen. I got my mother to mend our shrimping net, and tumbled into bed, with plenty of marsh slime between my toes, and a head somewhat troubled with wonder as to whether the officers would buy my shrimps, and let me come home again, or whether they would put on me a little red coat, and make me stand all day long on the rocks, to look out for sails, and tell them when Bony was coming.


This story is continued in The Marsh Fog and the Sea Breeze, Part 2.

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Quinn Taylor
Maddie Lazaro
Cosenza Hendrickson


21 March 2020

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Napoleon Bonaparte.