This is the transcript of episode 4 of my podcast series on, and leading up to, Thomas Dallam, the Elizabethan organ builder who sailed to Constantinople with a gift for the Sultan. You can listen to the episode here or through the usual podcast services.
Hello everyone. Welcome back to my series on English organ-builder Thomas Dallam which has developed into a series on Elizabethan England’s diplomatic engagements with the Islamic world, to be concluded with Dallam’s story. Last episode, we talked about England’s first ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, William Harborne. We saw the evolution of his position from “so called merchant” to official appointee and his struggles with rival diplomatic representatives, particularly the French and Venetians who he described as “subtle, malicious, and dissembling people.” We saw some of the difficulties he faced such as palace infighting and piracy, and how the latter a problem whether it was committed by or against the English. We saw him try to push Walsingham’s program, a united Anglo-Ottoman fleet against the Spanish naval threat. We saw him headed home at the end of his term, in August of 1588, successful enough in his work but worn out and underpaid, a pretty relatable figure really. And I told you he was replaced by his young secretary Edward Barton, a well-liked man who will show himself to be resourceful, bold, and not above a little underhandedness where necessary. Today, we’ll be tracing Edward Barton’s time in the sublime port of Constantinople, a time which saw him struggle due to his unofficial position, navigate the death of a sultan, and eventually go to war alongside the Ottomans in campaign against a Christian foe.
Once again, if you enjoy the episode, please keep listening after it’s done for ways to help me out with it.
Let’s talk first about the circumstances as Barton stepped up and into his new job. Specifically, let’s talk about at his employers.
The end of William Harborne’s time among the Ottomans came just one month before the Turkey Company’s charter ended, and this made it a good time for reassessment in London. Operating an embassy was an expensive business and there were those among the merchants who wondered if it had really been worth it. There was no knowing, at the time, to what degree Harborne’s diplomatic efforts had benefited the crown – had he saved them from more extensive Spanish naval aggressions for instance? – but the cost to the merchants was growing along with Anglo-Spanish tensions and profits were becoming harder to come by. There was money to made certainly; one ship’s cargo in 1588 went for 70K pounds, but on the other hand were the customs paid into the English treasury, the climbing insurance rates, the losses due to piracy and privateering, the illegal but seemingly unavoidable extortion at the Ottoman end, and the great cost of supporting an embassy.
Complicating the question of what to do with the post Harborne had vacated, was the argument that the Turkey Company’s charter ought to be renewed as one company joined with the, often overlapping, Venice Company. As momentum gained for the merger, the big question became one of which merchants would be in on the new monopoly. The heavy costs already borne by the original merchants led them to push back against the idea of allowing in latecomers to profit from their investments, while the seemingly endless possibilities for profit created a strong desire in those who hadn’t already been involved to become those latecomers and take advantage of the founders’ investments. As often seems to have occurred in English history, naval interests might have been the deciding factor. More merchants sailing for Turkish waters meant the equipping of more boats and the practical on-the-job training of sailors, and in pirate/Spaniard infested seas no less. Something of the sort was argued by the Navy Office, and a new and enlarged company, The Governor and Company of Merchants of the Levant received its 12 year charter and monopoly over English trade with Venice and the Ottomans, on January 7th, 1592.
And the moment was not a just new beginning for Anglo-Ottoman trade. There’s an interesting note in the charter about how its territory passed “through the Countries of the sayde Grand Sultan into and from the East India, lately discovered by John Newberie, Ralph Fitch, William Leech and James Stories.” These men had embarked on an 8 year journey on a ship I mentioned last episode, the Tiger, the one referenced in Macbeth with the witch’s line: “Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger.” The four men, directed by the same merchant who’d first sent Harborne to Constantinople, had been to Aleppo and made their way through Syria and Persia, and to India and beyond, and this, in this charter, is the start of something huge with its roots in their expedition. That’s because 30 members of the Levant Company were in only 8 years going to be founding members of another, quite important, group: the East India Company. But that is a whole different story, perhaps even a future series of stories. For now, let’s get back to Constantinople and to Edward Barton.
“Such an eyesore I am to the Christians here resident and so well esteemed by the Turks.”
Barton was running the shop in Constantinople, but he wasn’t doing it as an ambassador. Being an ambassador was extremely expensive, and Harborne before him had actually noted that it might be best to avoid appointing a new one for as long as possible when recalling the old. That was apparently what the French had been doing and managing just fine with only an official agent handling matters. Once that agent became an ambassador, well then there would have be expensive gifts made to the sultan, and gifts to all levels of governance too; entertainments would need to be provided; and one’s house had to be open to receive visitors, including any and all of the Christian community who cared to attend on Sundays and feast-days. If you could get by with but an agent, then all of that cost could be avoided, at least for a while.
So there he was, Agent Barton, in charge and in a new headquarters too. Harborne had always preferred to keep his work away from the city’s other Western Europeans, but after his departure, accusations began to be made that Barton was running a disorderly household; maybe as a young man at last in charge of his own affairs he let the nights get a little too loud, the guests to stay too long, and enjoy themselves too much. Whatever the cause, he’d been forced to reestablish himself elsewhere in the city.
Barton was young but he was very familiar with the business. Having been Harborne’s secretary, he had long been in Constantinople and was apparently well spoken in Turkish. He was actually able to translate written Anglo-Ottoman exchanges himself, and he actually insisted on it so as to avoid the kind of damaging misunderstanding that could so easily occur. Additionally, his dealings on Harborne’s behalf had taken him far and wide within the Ottoman domains, carrying correspondence and conducting dealings with merchants and consuls in other cities. Really, despite his age, Barton seems to have admirably combined personal charm with practical skill acquired in on the job experience; he’d apparently first come to the city at just 16 or 17 years. However, since taking over, he had been operating in a bit of a legal vacuum.
Harborne had left in 1588 and the new charter wasn’t going to be signed until 1592. During the interim years, Barton faced the unenviable prospect of trying to collect his 4% “consulage” fee from locally operating English merchants and factories as best he could. The money was to cover his operating expenses, but apparently, it was difficult to collect at the best of times, and in the absence of a ruling charter almost impossible. His correspondence of the period is filled with constant complaints that he simply didn’t have enough money to do his job effectively.
With his meager budget, Barton had pursued much the same ends as Harborne had: treatment of English merchants which accorded with the Anglo-Ottoman accord, sabotaging peace between Philip of Spain and the Sultan Murad, and mustering a fleet to oppose the still looming threat, even post-Armada, of the Spanish entering English waters. The first of these he was experienced enough with from his time as secretary, and in the second he may have been assisted by Philip’s stubborn refusal to be seen sending an official ambassador to the Ottomans; But he was still fairly inexperienced, and perhaps too quick to believe in his own success, especially where the conversation turned to putting boats in the water.
He tried everything to get that fleet moving, everything up to and including lying to the Ottomans and telling them that a peace was imminent between Elizabeth and Philip. However, one source in the city wrote that while the English bragged of their success in directing the Sultan’s actions and driving him into war on their behalf, all the Grand Vizier’s promises to that end were but empty words. The Grand Vizier committed to putting forth 200 galleys the following year when speaking with Barton, but in other company had let it be known that the English representative was still but a young man and that he was being treated as youth deserved. No fleet was going to threatening Spain from the east, not unless it was funded and secured by the Queen of England, and, of course, Elizabeth was never going to come up with the kind of money to fund an Ottoman naval attack on the Spanish.
If you’re wondering why it’s the Grand Vizier that’s meeting with Barton here, why it’s not the Sultan, that’s because Barton actually couldn’t meet with the Sultan until he could officially do so to provide his credentials and those oh-so-important-gifts, as an ambassador from Elizabeth. But likely, even as an ambassador, he’d have had no success moving the Ottomans militarily. So Barton and the Grand Vizier continued their little dance of threats, promises, negotiations, and still more promises of commitments to come, next year, or the next, certainly.
In October of 1590, orders were given to fit out a fleet for the following spring, but the empty arsenal wouldn’t have allowed for more than 4 or 5 ships to be properly equipped. Time passed. Then, the next year, in what might be my favourite assessment of military capability, a Venetian reported the following: “They say that the Turk has sold most of his stores of biscuit again. This is a token that no powerful fleet will sail.” It’s hearsay, of course, a rumour regarding the number of biscuits that the Ottomans may or may not have, but the assessment turned out to be an accurate one. That often promised Ottoman fleet, was never going to menace the Spanish coast, never going to coordinate with Francis Drake’s force and hunt Spanish sails on the Mediterranean.
Barton did have his own little victories though, moments that demonstrate something of his character. He even managed to do something about that troublesome French ambassador. Like Harbourne before him, Barton really did not view the other diplomats as friends and neighbours, or as colleagues and members of a community; they were competitors in an expensive and occasionally deadly game of international politics that could send the balance of power swinging off its course, and with few of these competitors was the relationship quite so antagonistic as it was with the French ambassador. In 1590, that French ambassador was a man named Jacques de Savary de Lancosme; quick tempered and headstrong, he had often clashed with Barton, but in 1589 his status in the city had been thrown in question by events at home. Henri de Navarre, or Good King Henry the 4th, had taken the throne, and Lancosme openly opposed his ascension, as many did, for Henry the 4th was, at least for now, a Huguenot, a Protestant.
Lancosme was formally dismissed in the summer of 1590, but, refusing to turn his key, he simply would not give up his post and go home. And this was where Barton stepped in.
He saw the fractures in the French community, even between Lancosme and his own nephew who was to take his place; Barton also learned of a payment which Lancosme had received from a Genoan merchant; Barton saw a vulnerability. He forged a letter in Italian so that it appeared to come from within the Vatican, and then he had that letter planted in Lancosme’s mail, quite likely with the help of that nephew I would think. All that remained was to denounce the ambassador as a Catholic spy in the pay of Philip of Spain, for the unfortunate man to be promptly surrounded in his home and arrested. Barton clearly wasn’t above getting his hands a little dirty, and it earned him the pleasure of receiving his rival into his custody, and of bundling him off back to France.
If this all sounds a bit more to you like the work of a spy than that of an ambassador, well the one was often much like the other. Barton made heavy use of code numbers and words in his letters to England, such heavy use in fact that Lord Burghley in England later complained of how long it took to decode and read them. Still, a secure postal service was not an easy thing to come by when writing of delicate matters between London and Constantinople. Letters often made their way overland via Poland, with doubled copies sent by different routes in case one was intercepted and altered or stolen on the way. And they were indeed often intercepted. Barton and his queen were well aware that English correspondence was being picked up on its journey, and that it then circulated in unflattering and malicious mistranslations that played up her apparent close, and anti-Christian, friendship with Sultan Murad. They were able to make some use of this problem though or at least responded to it, and in a very modern fashion. Letters from Elizabeth to Murad or Barton which put her in the most Christian light possible were, in the parlance of our times, leaked, widely publicizing for example that Barton had, under the Queen’s direction, brought about peace between Poland and the Ottomans.
Not all of Barton’s personal triumphs involved forging of letters, scribbling down codes, or framing competitors. Sometimes, an equal measure of boldness and patience was sufficient, as when he intervened in the case of John Field. Field was a barber and surgeon – because the two skills are basically interchangeable – and he had been attached to the embassy where he’d been merrily cutting everything that he was asked to until a breakout of prisoners from the Tower of the Black Sea drew the Grand Vizier’s attention. Now this particular Grand Vizier was not the one Barton had grown accustomed to dealing with; that familiar and friendly face had left for the wars in Hungary, and in his place was someone much less amicable, the sort of person who’d immediately have the Tower’s governor executed and our favourite barber/surgeon arrested and threatened with his own execution for having delivered a letter to one of the prisoners in the days before the escape. Barton brought his case to this temporary Grand Vizier but received only verbal abuse in return, and the threat of his own arrest if he persisted. So Barton left, and he waited. He waited because there was nothing he could do, nobody he could go to whose authority would supersede the Grand Vizier, not yet anyways.
He needed those gifts and that official status from England, had needed them for a while in fact, and not just to rescue Field.
“The Englishman has again been saying at the top of his voice that the boasted ship from his Queen is now at last due; it is already quite near; but now once more there is silence.” –Agent of Fugger April, 1593
While he boasted of coziness with the Ottoman court, Barton’s unofficial status was becoming an embarrassment. He was not dealing with the Ottomans openly as the official unofficial representative; he was telling them that his appointment was just a matter of time, the time needed for the appropriate gifts to arrive by sea. However, though some delay was understandable given the distance, after nearly 5 years, his excuses were beginning to wear a little thin. In January of 1593, there were reports that Barton had started casting the blame about, saying that Elizabeth’s present to the sultan had actually been on the boat, on the way, only to be taken by the hated Spanish privateers, but apparently this “the Spaniards ate my homework” explanation was not well received. There are indications that he’d even used the excuse before, often apparently, and this while English ships were continuing to show up, to ply their trade and their business, only the ones bearing Murad’s presents stubbornly persisting in being lost at sea. Barton had gone to the well too many times with that particular story.
A present was finally on the way, however, in 1593, for the English were not going to string Murad, and Barton, along indefinitely. Aboard the 260 ton Ascension was an assortment of rich cloths, jewels, plates, and valuable items, for the Sultan, for his consort Safiya, for the Grand Vizier, and for an assortment of palace officials from the highest rank on down. Fabrics really ruled the day here, from the satins and golden garments for Murad, all the way to the dark green cloth for a palace cook named Mehmed who Barton had in some way found useful.
The Ascension reached Constantinople in September, and, under Barton’s directions it held back until the time of Murad’s visit to his favourite seaside mosque. Then it came on, in pennants, flags, and banners, 2 cable lengths from shore, and as it drew alongside the mosque it fired off volleys of small shot and then its big guns in salute. And Murad enjoyed the show very much, so much so that he requested it be repeated for Safiya in the days to come, which of course it was.
Now Barton was back on better footing, and perhaps he could even do something for John Field. Quickly after the Ascension’s arrival, and even before Barton’s ceremonial giving of gifts and kissing of hands as an ambassador, he took the unusual step of petitioning Murad directly in the manner of one of his subjects. He approached in a small boat as Murad went to pray, again in that favourite seaside mosque, and 50 yards out he stood and held the scroll of his petition up to his head to get the attention of the Sultan’s attendants. Waved in by one of those attendants, possibly one bribed beforehand to grease the wheels, he delivered his petition and saw it taken to the Sultan.
And Barton was bold not just in the mode of delivery, for this was a highly unusual approach for a foreign representative to make, but also in the message itself. His petition was almost a threat. It demanded amends for Field’s imprisonment and for Barton’s mistreatment at the hands of the Grand Vizier, those insults offered to her Majesty the Queen in the person of her ambassador; and, if this was not satisfactorily done, it threatened to withhold Murad’s gift until such time as Barton could hear from the Queen as to whether or not she would bear the offense.
Clearly, Barton was bluffing, and not necessarily with a hand the Queen or her advisors would have approved of, but maybe he simply had a good understanding of Murad’s appetite for gifts, because the risk, and his confidence, paid off. Orders were given as Barton was still offshore in his boat; there was to be a public addressing of his grievances immediately, that day even, in the Grand Vizier’s Court where he was given a gown made of golden cloth by the man who had so recently threatened his arrest. Of Field I see no mention, but I like to think, being a Field myself, that he was released to a happy life, and that in the years to come he cut many things with scissors and razor.
We can be more certain that it was a wonderful time for Barton. His victory in the Field affair was apparently widely spoken of in the city, and now, fresh from that diplomatic coup, the 7th of October brought his official audience with the Sultan and with it the hand kissing ceremony.
On the day in question, Barton proceeded from his house, dressed all in gold and in silver. With him, were 7 gentlemen and 30 staff members. A volley of gunfire from the Ascension announced his presence, and he was soon greeted by 50 heralds with horses who went with them to the palace. On, into the inner court they went, where an honour guard awaited, and then lines of courtiers who bowed before them as they passed. Next, Barton was received by the recently hostile Acting Grand Vizier in the Hall of Justice, and he presented him with the Queen’s letters.
Next, it was dinner time. There was a feast of one hundred dishes laid out on long carpets. The food was taken soberly, silently, and surprisingly quickly, for the main event was still to come. Barton and his company were dressed in gold gowns and led to another, smaller, court where Murad sat surrounded by marble. The presentation began.
Servants entered in a line, almost 100 of them and each bearing a gift sent by Elizabeth. One after another, they filed past the Sultan so that he might admire the items before the line wound its way out and down to the storage rooms, maybe never to be seen by him again unless something caught his eye. Then Barton was seized strongly by the sleeves of his gown, his arms pinned to his sides, and he was marched forward to Murad’s throne. Still held close by two men, he bent down and kissed the Sultan’s hand where it rested still on the arm of a chair. He was dragged back, and the operation repeated for each of his companions. Then he made a formal request, a brief one, and with an increase to his daily allowance of meat, hay, wood, and money, he was dismissed. He returned home with a mounted escort, the members of which he entertained that night at a large banquet, and just to give you some idea of how expensive running an embassy could be, one witness places the number of Ottoman horsemen in his escort party, at 2,000, 2,000 men, if our source is to be believed, who then feasted at his expense.
Barton was at his peak then. He still complained that he was held back by his salary, which was both small compared to his contemporaries and actually unforthcoming, but his standing among local diplomats was now unmatched. The French representative was relatively new to the job and had Barton to thank for putting him in it; the Venetian I have seen described as by this point a “bitter and disappointed man;” Spain was still constrained by Philip’s refusal to send an ambassador to the Ottomans; and the renewal of warfare saw the German Habsburgs’ ambassador imprisoned. Barton was riding high, but his assigned task was difficult: Elizabeth wanted him to bring peace between Murad and the Habsburg Empire, wanted him to remind the Sultan that he should keep his promises to join her against Spain before committing resources to yet another expensive war. The obvious difficulty of this task aside, Barton would not have long to bask in the sun.
“105 is extremely sick, some say dead and his son sent for out of Magnasia in Natolia.” – Edward Barton January 11th, 1595
With these ominous words, in a postscript to his regular dispatch, Barton signaled his unease over the health of the Sultan, code number 105. He had heard correctly. Actually, Murad had been dead for 4 days, or maybe he was about to be dead in 4 days; there’s some confusion over that. Death was definitely happening though. Murad III, he who didn’t leave the palace compound and was reported, perhaps inaccurately, to have lived on solid meat, thick soups, and sheeps’ marrow, was dead at 50 years old, having ruled for 20. However, few knew of it yet. Exactly how few is up for debate given that Barton had obviously picked up on something being amiss, but certainly the death was not widely announced immediately because, as we just heard, his son, Mehmed III, was away.
The Ottomans had experienced problems of succession in the past, civil wars erupting over questions of who should rule, and their actions now were intended to avoid any such thing. There were reports of turmoil in the palace, the sound of gunshots at night and the sight bodies in the river during the interim, but Mehmed III was firmly on the seat of power when word went out of his father’s end. Then this new sultan’s reign began with a dark chapter. Mehmed called his brothers to him, 19 of them, and the oldest only 11 years old. They came before him and they kissed his hand and then each and every one was strangled with a handkerchief. Mehmed himself was said to have grieved and torn at his beard and all present to have wept at the sight of the 19 small coffins which joined their father’s, but there would be no debate over succession. Beyond that first son of a sultan, the others only existed to ensure that there was someone to take the throne, and to be born the 20th son of a Sultan, well that was indeed a short, doomed, existence.
As for Barton, his years of slow hard work were washed away, the status he’d achieved with Murad, and his familiarity with the network of figures within his palace who were now replaced; all was gone and so was his official standing. Only 15 months after the costly voyage of the Ascension, a new round of gifts was going to be needed for him to appear before Mehmed.
Again, Barton found himself operating as a mere agent, but now trying to play the same game with unfamiliar faces. He pressed both crown and company over the urgency of his situation. The longer it went without letters of congratulation and gifts for the Sultan, he argued, the less acceptable those eventual gifts were going to seem. Maybe, he suggested, Elizabeth could write a letter indicating she’d been good friends with Murad and that she was simply surprised not to have heard from Mehmed personally, or perhaps, he even said, she could part with that rooster shaped clock he’d heard that she had in one of her palaces; it could make a nice present.
Meanwhile, the new Venetian representative arrived and brought with him a silver-gilt ship that required more than one man to carry, as well as cheeses, candles, and sugar loaves. All, Barton glumly reported, were very well received by Mehmed. And still, as months passed, the merchants and the Crown argued again over who should take up the costs of Barton’s next kissing of hands, the former very much aware of how recently they’d footed the bill for the last such occasion. With no gifts forthcoming, no indication even that he ought to expect them, Barton had to do something to retain any kind of fruitful standing in the city. Maybe this was why Barton went to war, joining the imperial army that was bound for the Hungarian frontier in 1596.
“The new king, Sultan Mehmed, went to the wars in Hungary against the Christian emperor the first year of his reign.” John Sanderson, Barton’s assistant
Perhaps, when Barton joined Mehmed’s campaign, he was acting on Elizabeth’s general directive that he should attempt to bring about peace and ensure that Ottoman war efforts could be better focused on Spain; perhaps, as I have seen in one source, he was escorting the Habsburg ambassador; perhaps the Sultan ordered him to come along in case he became useful as a negotiator, particularly with Poland; or maybe Barton decided he had to go along, had to support the sultan, because his own situation in the city was otherwise increasingly tenuous, all his gains slipping from his grasp while he waited for Elizabeth’s privy council and the merchants of London to finish bickering over who would pay.
Whatever his combination of reasons, he went, following a Sultan who may himself have been bullied into leading the army by his own Grand Vizier, departing drastically from his father’s approach in the process. They left to join what was largely a grinding war of sieges, but there was one contest on open ground, over 3 days at the Battle of Keresztes, in northern Hungary. There, in a closely fought struggle the Ottoman side took greater losses but won the field with a decisive counterattack against the Archduke Maximilian’s men as they pillaged the Ottoman camp, unable to resist doing so after having overrun it. From the Sultan Mehmed’s point of view, the whole thing had been a smashing success. Though he is said to have wanted to avoid open battle in the first place, and then been quite keen to retreat at various points, he apparently shot 3 arrows himself and killed 3 men if the stories are to be believed. Upon his return, he even wrote to Elizabeth expressing how pleased he was with her man Barton and his services on the campaign.
However, being cheerily thanked for something that profoundly irritated you in the first place, rarely makes you feel any better, and Elizabeth was not at all pleased by Barton’s involvement in the Ottoman campaign. Trading in the sublime port was one thing, something which all the European powers were engaged in. Accompanying the Ottoman imperial army against a Christian opponent was quite another matter, and it certainly did not go unnoticed. Elizabeth found herself forced to defend her representative’s actions, to speak against the rumours that she had, quote, “incited the most loathsome enemy of the Christian name to wage war on Christian princes.” Barton had actually displayed England’s arms upon his tent, and in a sense taken England to war to with him, again on the side of Muslims against a Christian army. There were even rumours that at Keresztes, he had drawn his sword, and this doesn’t actually seem totally unlikely to me if he’d been in the Ottoman camp when it was overrun.
Edward Barton came home, and he died; or at least that’s how the story is sometimes presented, as if being drawn into the Sultan’s war against his fellow-Christians was somehow so physically, morally, or spiritually exhausting that he collapsed dead upon returning. Actually there is some variation in how the end of his story is told: he was poisoned for fear he was trying to convert the Sultan to Christianity, not a version there appears to be any support for; he fled the plague but unknowingly carried it with him to Heybeli Ada, where he was buried; or, as seems broadly agreed upon, he succumbed to dysentery.
Barton was 34 years old when he died in January of 1598. He had accomplished much in his time in the city, and often with little to do it with but boldness, guile, and a likable personality. Despite ending his run without official standing as an ambassador, those gifts for Mehmed having never materialized, he handed things off to his successor in good shape. That successor was a man named Henry Lello. Like Barton before him, Lello had been an assistant in Constantinople first, but, unlike Barton, only for a year. I have seen his appointment described as coming “for want of a better,” but, in any case, it would be Lello who would be the English face in the city when Thomas Dallam arrived to deliver the long-looked-for present. And that’s what we’ll be getting into next full episode when the departure of Dallam will finally be happening. Before that though, look for a mini-episode next week, on a part of this story I didn’t want to get too stuck into here, but definitely merits attention and also just really helps in understanding Elizabeth’s relationship with the Ottomans.
Talk to you then.
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