The 150th Anniversary of Seven Oaks
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 22, 1965-66 season
The purpose of this paper will be briefly to examine the long-range background and causes leading to the skirmish at Seven Oaks and then to examine more intensively the years after Lord Selkirk's settlement was planted on the banks of the Red River. This will show in some detail the breakdown of relations between the two Companies and the crucial role the settlement played in this breakdown which finally resulted in the massacre.
The latter years of the eighteenth century were marked by a competition for the furs of Canada's hinterland. The Hudson's Bay Company found that their old enemies, the French traders were replaced by partnerships or Companies, made up mostly of Scottish or Canadian traders. The main competition to the Hudson's Bay Company was provided by the North West Company. This Company was a loose union of different partnerships which had come together in 1776 because they recognized the benefits of a large organization. Because of its structure it lacked share capital and it distributed its profits annually. This meant that it could not accumulate large financial reserves and designed it, out of necessity, for an ever-expanding trade.
This expanding trade resulted in the Nor'Westers, as these Canadian traders came to be called, pushing past the limits reached by la Verendrye in order to develop the inland trade. The development of this trade resulted in conflict, first and on a minor scale between the various partnerships, then between the Old North West Company and the New North West Company, or the XY Company as it was also called, and finally between the amalgamated North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. The relatively peaceful trading which had been a characteristic of the latter part of the eighteenth century gave way to nearly a quarter of a century of violence at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The violent aspect of the conflict first occurred between the Old and the New North West Companies. A series of turbulent clashes finally resulted in the murder of one King, a clerk of the Old North West Company. King was trying to seize the furs of the New Company from a young clerk by the name of Lamothe. Lamothe shot and killed King. 
The union of the two Companies meant that their bloody methods were no longer directed against each other. After 1804 their energies were directed against the Hudson's Bay Company and later Lord Selkirk's colony. A. S. Morton in his A History of the Canadian West to 1870-71 maintains that the North West Company Highlanders (the McTavishes, McGillivrays, MacKenzies, MacDonalds, McLeods, Camerons, Campbells, etc.) forgot their clannish feuds of the old country and fused their diverse loyalties into a new and single loyalty to the North West Company. Along with this loyalty to the Company they brought their lawless violence which they directed against the Hudson's Bay Company. The men of the Hudson's Bay Company were not the type who would risk life and limb to defend their Company's property, let alone retaliate in kind. This general passiveness on the part of Hudson's Bay Company employees did not discourage the vaunted "spirit of the Nor'Westers" and the period from 1804-10 was marked by a Northwestern campaign of violence against the Hudson's Bay Company. The violence was not abetted when the North West Company's negotiations for trading rights on the Bay were turned down on the grounds that such a traffic would not conform to the 'Bay's' Charter.
At the same time as they were engaging in this campaign of violence against the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company was establishing a transcontinental trading system.
These circumstances, plus the fact that North West Company morale was kept high by promotional opportunities for clerks and profits for partners, combined to place the North West Company in a better and better position.
In 1811 the Company accepted a scheme of colonization for the Red River area put forward by Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk as part of the general reorganization. Lord Selkirk, in his younger days, had sympathized with the early aims of the French Revolution. Later he had combined a humanitarian concern with a vision of Empire to start two settlements of varying degrees of success in Prince Edward Island and Upper Canada. In his third attempt at settlement he acquired a land grant from the Hudson's Bay Company (in which he held shares) of 116,000 square miles, which included parts of present day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Minnesota and North Dakota. This grant was known as Assiniboia.
The Company's reasons for granting the land to Selkirk are interesting because they had opposed settlement for some time previous to the grant. In a statement submitted to Lord Bathurst, Secretary for War and Colonies, in late 1814 or early 1815, the Hudson's Bay Company Committee stated their three main aims for permitting the settlement. They were: (1) to provide a cheap source of food supply for the Company; (2) to improve the land value by settlement; (3) to improve the civilization of the Indians.
Later in the same statement the Committee claimed that they anticipated no trouble from the Northwesters and that the reason for this was that the Hudson's Bay Company had been in the country for some time.  While it is true that Kelsey had been the first white man to see the Canadian prairies it also is true that the French and later the Nor'Westers challenged the Hudson's Bay Company's monopolistic claims in this area.
The Nor'Westers saw the settlement's main purpose as an attempt to cut across their supply line and destroy their Company rather than for the reasons stated above. Their attitude is probably best explained by the fact that an inherent part of the North West Company's new and successful transcontinental trading system was the interior supply base. The "inland trade had wedded the plains rich in meat to the forests rich in furs, and the increase in the scale and range of the trade in the last years of the eighteenth century made a sure supply of provisions from the plains only less important than the taking of furs in the forests".  This was increasingly true in the nineteenth century since one of the main links of the North West supply route was from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg via the Grand Portage. The North West Company drew heavily for its food supply on the buffalo of the Lake Winnipeg basin and to a lesser degree on the agriculture of the area.
Because of their dependence on the area, there was some validity to the North West Company charges, however the settlement was only one aspect of the Hudson's Bay Company's operations. The colony was Selkirk's work. The reason why he was able to have it accepted, besides the blocks of stocks he and his brothers-in-law owned or controlled, was that the Company was in a slump. Those who opposed settlement in favour of trade had to face two facts about settlement; (1) it would result in a cheap source of food supply; (2) it would make good the Company's claim to the soil which was in danger. These are the main reasons for the settlement but since the,
Although the North West Company was inveterately opposed to the scheme and was intent on blocking its success in London and in Scotland, the wheels for its creation were in motion. Selkirk was busy establishing the legality of his grant and the legality of the colonial institutions that were to be inaugurated. He consulted many good lawyers. These lawyers assured him that his grant was valid and events since have proved their wisdom.
In July of 1811 his work bore fruit as a party of 36 Scottish and Irish labourers  left from Stornaway under Governor Miles Macdonell. They were to act as an advance party whose task it was to make preparations for the colonists of 1812. On the 2nd of September the `Edward and Ann' arrived at York Factory after a passage of sixty-one days, "the longest ever known and the latest to Hudson's Bay". Two days later the 'Eddystone' arrived. Because of the lateness of their arrival all the passengers had to be accommodated at York Factory. This caused a great deal of hardship and did not endear the settlers to the fur traders.
The hardships and privations suffered as a result of the unexpected wintering on the Bay were severe indeed. Added to this there was another important problem - the advance party was not able to travel into the interior and make any preparations at Red River for the arrival of more settlers in 1812.
However, they did set out for Red River in the summer of 1812 and on August 30th of that year Macdonell and his party, which was reduced to 18, arrived at the Forks. On September 4th at the Forks, Macdonell took formal possession of the area. Miles wrote his brother 'Spanish John' about the occasion, "The extensive Grant to the Earl of Selkirk from the Hudson's Bay Company I had publicly read at the Forks". 
Late in October, 120 Irish and Hebridean settlers arrived with an unknown number of women and children. Their arrival was late but even if it had occurred earlier they would have had to winter at Pembina where the Company had a post (Fort Daer).
At this time the relations between the settlers under Governor Miles Macdonell and the North West Company represented by Alexander McDonnell, were good. During the first winter Alex. McDonnell provided the colony with supplies which they desperately needed. He also supplied his cousin Miles, with a horse and a man to help him. That winter Miles stayed at the North West Company post.
Good relations were also established with the freemen (French Canadians detached from any fur company), and the metis or boisbrules. Both groups appeared to have been "well disposed towards the colony. Such seems to have been at all times the general disposition of the Salteur (Salteaux) Indians".  Unfortunately Governor Macdonell did not spend much time maintaining good relations with his own people.
In May of 1813 the seeding began. Lots were laid out along the river in strips, similar to the pattern in Lower Canada. There were two disappointments that year however. The third party of immigrants failed to arrive as was expected, and the crops failed. All the settlers, except one John MacLean and his family, went south once again to Pembina.
That winter on January 8, 1814 in anticipation of the arrival of the third party of settlers Governor Macdonell had an embargo placed on the export of pemmican. This was done not only out of concern for his own people but at the same time Macdonell realized that it would put less strain on the other Hudson's Bay Company posts. This was a factor to be considered because Governor Macdonell and his settlers were not particularly favoured by the traders. Still less were they favoured when the traders had to give up part of their ration stores to feed them.
The embargo applied to the 1814-15 season. It prohibited the confiscation of pemmican without compensation. The area affected was that contained within Assiniboia. Certain posts (Fort Gibralter, the post at the junction of the Souris and the Assiniboine, and Fort Qu'Appelle) were exempted to the degree that the traders were allowed enough pemmican to reach their destination.  However the pemmican needed to take the brigades to Fort William was seized. The crucial nature of the embargo was the timing of it. If sufficient time had been granted, the Nor'Westers could easily have obtained their pemmican on the Upper Qu'Appelle and the Saskatchewan at only a slight increase in cost.
One final point should be noted and that is the North West Company's supply route had been dealt a severe blow by the recapture of Detroit by the Americans in 1813. The embargo, on top of the severing of their route to the Canadas, enfuriated the Nor'Westers. 
In June of 1814 the third party of settlers finally arrived at Red River, 83 in all. They were followed in the fall by a small party of 15. This increased the number of farmers and seemed to bode well for the success of the colony.
Governor Macdonell realized that even if the crops yielded a good harvest, pemmican and fish would be necessary in large amounts once again. To this end he issued on July 21, 1814, a proclamation against the hunting of buffalo on horseback near the settlement. This was to prevent the buffalo from being driven away. Both the Nor'Westers and the Indians agreed with this move - the latter because they preferred to hunt the buffalo on foot. Only the freemen and the Métis objected. The Métis considered the proclamation an unwarranted interference with their way of life.
The Nor'Westers were later to use this one issue and the idea of the half-breed nation, to exploit the native discontent against the settlement. Thus Macdonell's well meaning proclamation proved in the long run to be a boon to the North West Company.
With all these factors taken into consideration, especially the knowledge of Métis resentment of Macdonell's proclamation, and the fact that the Nor'Westers could depend on their support, the Nor'Westers resolved in the Council of 1815 to stamp the colony out of existence.
Because they feared for the life of the settlement, the Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company appealed to Lord Bathurst for protection in March of 1815. Protection was not provided however, and trouble came. Dugald Cameron, a veteran Nor'Wester, had arrived at Red River and taken over control of the North West Company operations from Alexander McDonnell in June of 1814. That winter Cameron worked on the settlers and pointed out the hardships they had endured. He promised them transportation to Upper Canada and aid in getting settled once they arrived there. He did his work well and in the summer of 1815 about 140 of them  left for the East in North West Company canoes.
On June 20th, 1815, Governor Miles Macdonell was arrested on a Canadian warrant and taken East for a trial. This was arranged by the North West Company agents, who were sworn in as magistrates and who had power to do this under the Canada Jurisdiction Act of 1803. After the Governor was arrested the half-breeds harassed the remaining settlers.
A rather remarkable and incriminating account of this whole affairis found in a letter from Charles McKenzie, a North West Company clerk, to another Nor'Wester. John Siveright. McKenzie had just heard that the colonists had left the country or rather were "compelled to leave it by a band of lawless half-breeds whom the North West Company have gathered for that purpose". He had also learned, much to his enjoyment, that the half-breeds had been very savage, sniping at the settlers for three nights in a row. The affect of this target practice was the wounding of three colonists and the death of the bull and several horses. Before passing on to other matters he informed Siveright that he was "very happy to see that the North West Company have so far accomplished their ends ...". 
The triumph of the North West. Company was not complete however. Lord Selkirk had been receiving advice as to reorganization from the former Nor'Wester Colin Robertson.
When Robertson arrived at the Red River, the blacksmith's shop inhabited by McLeod was all that remained. There, records Robertson, "they (Métis) told me frankly that they had been paid by the North West Company to drive away the Colonists". 
Robertson went north to the encampment of the remaining settlers. After the Athabaska expedition was sent on its way he returned with the settlers. The settlers immediately set to work gathering the harvest.
On October 15, 1815, Robertson seized Cameron when he was out for a stroll on the prairie. With Cameron as hostage, he gained entrance to the North West Company Fort, Gibralter.
On November 4th, Governor Semple and 84 more settlers arrived.
All that fall, and in a growing volume as spring progressed, rumours floated down the Assiniboine to the Hudson's Bay post that the Métis were gathering in the north with the intention of destroying the settlement in the spring. With the Hudson's Bay Company push into the Athabasca territory the colony's importance had increased. The colony might even be the "decisive factor in the contest for the fur trade of the Northwest, and must therefore be destroyed".  At Fort Daer, Pritchard wrote of the growing alarm among hunters and free Canadians who worked for the Hudson's Bay Company, at the anticipated reprisals. Bostonnais Pangman, who had "headed the Half-breeds when they burnt the houses the preceding spring"  and who now was in charge of the North West post at Pembina, was becoming obstreperous.
As the rumours of an impending raid increased, Cameron returned from Qu'Appelle in March. He was once more strutting about in the uniform of Major McLeod, which he had not worn since he had been captured in the fall. Robertson was growing alarmed and on March 19th, he and 14 men marched into Fort Gibralter and again seized Cameron. A half-finished letter to James Grant was found on Cameron's desk which contained the phrase, "I wish that some of your 'Pilleurs' who are fond of mischief and plunder would come and pay a hostile visit to these sons of Gunpowder and riot, they might make a very good booty if they went cunningly to work". 
This letter led Robertson to seize the North West Company express containing the mail. From the mail he received further information which showed that the North West Company planned to destroy the settlement in the Spring.
In May Robertson seized Fort Gibralter and in June it was pulled down. McDonnell was now cut off from the usual line of communications to the East. At the same time 500 Nor'Westers were dependent for their supplies on the mercy of Governor Semple. Realizing this, McDonnell took the appropriate action,
At the end of March Governor Semple had returned to the colony from his travels to other forts. At first he accepted Robertson's actions, and it "would have been well if he had continued to follow the lead of the subtle Canadian, but Semple was too upright and straightforward to really sympathize with his subordinate's tactics, and hesitated to accept plans which really meant war".  His vacillations and indecision later led to an open break and Robertson left the settlement on June 11th for York Factory with Cameron, his prisoner.
Meanwhile, McDonnell and his followers had arrived at Brandon House on June 1. Nearly fifty of the North West Company half-breeds and Indians raided the Hudson's Bay Company establishment there. They broke open doors and cut out the windows, plundering and looting the post of "everything it contained amounting to a considerable quantity of trading goods and various other articles". 
On June 16 McDonnell's party arrived at Portage. He was disappointed at learning that no word had been received of the "arrival from the northward of any of the Partners of the North West Company at the entrance of the River Winnipeg."  With the Hudson's Bay Company in control of the Forks, McDonnell was growing more alarmed about the general situation. According to his own records one of the most important problems was the need for sending provisions, "to prevent the canoes in Lake Winnipeg from being starved". To this end he ordered Cuthbert Grant, who had been appointed Captain General of all the half-breeds in the country in 1815, Antoine Hoole and Michael Bourrassa to take provisions to them by canoe and cart.
On June 18th, 150 years ago today, Grant and about fifty men and boys moved off. They were instructed that on,
These are the instructions, according to McDonnell, given by himself to Grant. Additional evidence points out that their real purpose was to join with other Nor'Westers down river of the settlement and after the two forces had combined, to attack Fort Douglas.
On June 3rd, Robert Henry wrote his uncle Alexander Henry, that it was rumoured the Hudson's Bay Company had captured the North West Company post at the Forks. As a result a group of about fifty were leaving Fort William, gathering Indians on the way, for "we are determined to recover our property ... I would not be surprised if some of us should leave our bones there". 
Most of the Nor'Wester's correspondence is, like Henry's letter, worded in such a manner as to make the Hudson's Bay Company capture of Fort Gibralter an excuse for the Nor'Westers' attack on Fort Douglas.  The validity of this view, which seems plausible enough, is dealt a severe blow by a letter Cuthbert Grant wrote Cameron, four days before the capture.
To return once more to Grant and the half-breeds, it is known they arrived at Catfish Creek (now known as Omand's Creek) sometime during the afternoon of the 19th. There they hid their canoe and transferred the pemmican and supplies to the two carts. After holding a council, they set off across the prairies in a north-easterly direction in two groups.
The first group passed Fort Douglas without being seen. On their way past the settlement they captured three settlers who were working their fields, Alexander and William Bannerman and Alexander Murray. The second group was spotted from the fort. (This was approximately 6 o'clock). Governor Semple and some of the other officers climbed to to top of the barn and examined the situation with a spy-glass. In the distance, moving towards the settlers, they could distinguish a body of armed men on horseback, moving at a trot. Semple immediately called out, "We must go and meet these people, let twenty men follow me". To the suggestion that they take the three-pounder with them, Semple replied that he only going to speak to them so it would not be necessary. 
Semple left the fort with about 28 men. Moving down the settlement road (present-day Main Street) they encountered some settlers  fleeing to the fort. After an exchange of words with one of them Semple and his followers moved on. About three-quarters of a mile from the fort they saw the half-breeds on horseback behind a clump of woods. As the settlers drew nearer they discovered that there were more of their antagonists than they had at first realized. Semple called a halt and sent Bourke, the Storekeeper, back for the field-piece. However, the Governor, impatient at the delay, ordered his party to advance.
Meanwhile, the second and larger party of half-breeds had just arrived at their destination. Grant began a short parley with regard to the prisoners when someone cried out "See, the English pursue us".  The half-breeds then wheeled about, advancing on the settlers in a half-moon formation.
Semple's men immediately moved into an extended line formation, and at the same time retreated a short distance. A half-breed, one Boucher, a North West Company servant, rode out from Grant's party, "waving his hand and calling out in a most insolent manner".  He shouted "What do you want?", which Semple rebutted "What do you want?" Boucher answered "We want our fort". The Governor responded "Go to your fort." Boucher retorted "Why did you destroy our fort you damned rascal!"  The Governor, angered at what he probably deemed insolence from a native, grasped the bridle of Boucher's horse and ordered his men to take him. Boucher slipped from his horse and ran to his own lines. A general discharge of arms followed.  Lieutenant Holte and Semple both fell. The settlers, showing their lack of training grouped around their leader like cattle for a slaughter. Another volley almost completed their destruction. Some threw down their arms, lifted their hats and cried for mercy, which was not forthcoming. (Grant denied this and provided an interesting alternative suggestion of what had occurred. He maintained that after firing, his followers, in keeping with their native training, went to the ground to reload. The settlers thinking they had been killed, raised their hats in shouts of victory.)
It was not long before all of the settlers were wounded or dead. Pritchard saw Captain Rogers of the Royal Engineers struggle to his feet. Pritchard yelled to him to give himself up. Rogers tried to do this but was shot in the head by one "Grostette" Deschamps after Deschamps' father said, "no pardon".  Then the half-breed son of Colonel McKay slashed him open, cursing loudly as he did so. Pritchard, through the entreaties of the half-breed Lavigne, was spared the same fate, much to the anger of some of the more savage natives. Semple, who had only been wounded by the first volley told Grant that if he was given medical care he might live. Grant stood a guard over him but one of the Indians, Machicabou, ignoring the guard, shot and killed Semple.
The skirmish lasted about fifteen minutes. It was a fight to the finish and only seven settlers escaped with their lives.  The half-breeds, dressed as Indian warriors and with their "faces painted in the most hideous manner"  were a superior fighting force. Their whole way of life was based on a pattern of hunting and shooting to kill. This, together with the fact that they were mounted, on the open prairies, against men inexperienced in violent ways and who were outnumbered about two to one, accounts for the half-breed success. There were only two native casualties (one wounded and one killed) against twenty-one settlers dead and one wounded. Governor Semple, Captain Rogers, Mr. James White the surgeon, Mr. Alex. McLean a settler, Mr. J. P. Wilkinson the Governor's private secretary, Lieutenant Holte and fifteen settlers were killed. Bourke was wounded when he was returning to investigate after having deemed it wiser not to bring out the cannon. 
These are the facts of the Massacre. What were the causes? There are many different ones naturally enough, but the two basic ones are, the hostility between the two fur-trading Companies and the North West Company's hostility to the colony based on the resentment of the transient fur-trader against the settler. Hostile feeling had existed long before the settlement had appeared, but with its appearance out breaks of violence increased as the North West Company determined to drive the settlers and the Hudson's Bay Company traders out of the country. The "Bay" people, for their part, were resolved to stay, "in support of their territorial rights". 
In the process of co-ordinating their activities the North West Company sent a party of half-breeds with supplies, under Grant, to join with Nor'Westers coming from Fort William. On their way past the Hudson's Bay post Grant's party was sighted.  Governor Semple, who feared for the safety of the settlers, especially since he had been hearing many rumours of a native attack, marched out to find out what the half-breed's intentions were. When the two parties met, even though neither intended to kill the other (at the time), only cool heads could have prevented some sort of bloodshed. Boucher's impudent address enfuriated Governor Semple. If Semple had kept his head the situation still might have been saved. He didn't. He acted rashly and grasped Boucher's bridle and ordered him to be taken. This resulted in the firing which once begun, could not stop unless one side was annihilated.
In his letter to Sherbrooke on the massacre, Selkirk wrote, "Mr. Semple was not a man likely to act in a violent or illegal manner, so as to give any just ground for such an attack as appears to have been made".  Perhaps Semple was not a violent man when writing for the Edinburgh Review but he was far from Edinburgh. He was living in a violent land where violent deeds were committed every day in man's struggle against the elements and his fellow man. The legality of the situation was not important at Red River as it was in Montreal or London. Here was only the law of the prairie and northland in the struggle for furs and control of the hinterland.
1. The dispute as to the question of jurisdiction in Canadian courts resulting from King's death led to the "Canada Jurisdiction Act" of 1803. According to the first clause of this Act provisions were made for the trial and punishment of any offence in Indian territory in the same manner as that which existed in Upper and Lower Canadas. The second clause gave the Governor or Lieutenant-Governor of Lower Canada power to authorize resident persons as Civil Magistrates and Justices of the Peace to hear crimes and offences and to have apprehended persons brought to Montreal. "This ... clause was needlessly wide and left it open for an unscrupulous trader to arrest his opponent and take him down to distant Montreal, probably to be released by the courts there-a procedure much to the advantage of the trader who effected the arrest, for he had got his rival out of the country meanwhile." A. S. Morton, A History of the Canadian West, to 1870-71, p. 515.
25. Selkirk Papers, 2521 & 2522, Fidler's 'Narrative', Chester Martin's account of the affair (p. 109, op. cit.) has one slight error. He wrote, "The half-breeds took `even the Grind stone'." His footnote reference for this, Selkirk Papers, 2521, Fidler's 'Narrative', is incorrect. This phrase is not to be found in the whole of his account on the pillaging of Brandon House. Selkirk Papers, 2520-2523.
29. See Selkirk Papers, the relevant sections in the Letters, Account Books, & Journals of the North West Partners found by Lord Selkirk at Fort William, 1816, more specifically 8612, A. N. McLeod, Robt. Henry & John McLaughlin to Grant & Morrison, 5 June, 1816.
31. The fact that Semple intended only to speak to the natives is established beyond doubt. To cite only two examples of testimony to this effect let us examine that of Alex. McBeath and Charles Bellegrade. McBeath, an old soldier of the 73rd Regiment, was coming to the fort for protection. Aocording to his testimony he warned Semple to take two field pieces and to keep his back to the river so lie could not be surrounded. When he volunteered to go with them if he was given a gun, Semple said, "No, no, there is no occasion, I am only going to seak to them." Papers Rel. to R. R. S., p. 185. Charles Bellegrade, a free Canadian, who supplied some very interesting testimony, said that he saw Semple about four o'clock at Frog Plain. Semple told him at that time that he expected the half-breeds. "I have a paper which I will go and read to them, and afterwards if they choose to kill me, they may." This is partially confirmed by Grant. Papers Rel. to R. R. S., p. 189.
35. The last remark was not heard by Pritchard, whose 'Narrative' provides the basis for most of the account up to this point. It was heard by one Michael Haydon, another of the settlers, who escaped.
36. There is a dispute as to which side fired the first shot. On the basis of one Hudson's Bay Company man (Haydon), whose testimony was suspect, versus five Nor'Westers, Coltman concluded that the settlers' party fired first. If this had not been the case, he reasoned, the others settlers who escaped would have positively stated that the Nor'Westers had fired the first shot. This doesn't necessarily follow; after all, most of the settlers were dead. It is stated that Lt. Holte accidentally discharged his rifle nearer the fort and was chastised for this by Semple. This might have been what the North West Company personnel, other than Grant who positively stated it was John Moor of the Hudson's Bay Company, were referring to. For the conflicting testimony see Papers Rel. to the R. R. S., pp. 186-8.
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