All the content in this America section was developed from 2003 lessons, namely;
  – America in the 1500s
  – The Slave Trade
The content below has been modified to align with the 2011/2012 curriculum changes

Conquest, warfare and Spanish early colonialism in the Americas

The Caribbean Islands

On his first voyage, Columbus claimed San Salvador, Cuba and Hispaniola as Spanish possessions. He built a fort and left behind Spanish soldiers to hunt for gold on Hispaniola, while he returned to Spain. (These men were later murdered by the inhabitants of the island for mistreating them.) On his second voyage, Columbus took a thousand Spanish colonists to settle in Hispaniola. This was the first European colony in the ‘New World’. These colonists fought among themselves and with the inhabitants of the island. They were greedy and complained that there was not enough gold to make them all rich. They were given land and allowed to force the indigenous people to work for them, but they were still not satisfied. The colonists were also responsible forintroducing foreign epidemic diseases such as influenza, smallpox, measles and typhus, which drastically reduced the indigenous population in the Caribbean within 50 years.

columbus_firstvoyageColumus’ First Voyage to San Salvador, Cuba and Hispaniola. Source: wikipedia

Spain Conquest

After Christopher Colombus 'discovered' the Americas in 1492, he was made governor of the new territories. These conquests were soon followed by the colonisation of most of South and Central America, parts of the Caribbean, Mexico and much of the United States of America (USA).

In 1494 Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordisillas, which was meant to divide the globe in two spheres of influence, so that the two empires would not interfere with each other's explorations and conquests. West of the line would be Spain's sphere of influence and east would be Portugal's. The line ran through what is today South America and particularly Brazil. The result was that most of South and Central America fell into the hands of Spain. Portugal colonised Brazil, which they discovered in 1500 and lies east of the line of Tordisillas.

In the early 16th century, the Spanish began their conquest of the Americas. As far as they went, they subjugated local populations and imposed Christianity upon them. The Spanish soldiers, explorers and other adventurers who conquered these lands were called 'conquistadors', which means conquerors. Many came hoping to make a fortune.

The Caribbean islands Hispaniola (which means 'Little Spain' and is today divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico and Cuba were among the first American lands to be conquered. In 1512, the first Spaniards to settle on the American mainland did so in Panama. But not all the American land was brought under Spanish control. In many cases, the conquistadors had to fight against stronger local adversaries before land could be claimed for the Spanish crown. In Mexico, it took Hernán Cortés and his men over 2 years to subdue the Aztec empire. In 1521 he succeeded with the help of Native American allies and called Mexico "New Spain". The fall of the mighty Inca empire followed and was complete the by 1533.

The conquistadors were notorious for their cruelty and ferocity. Local populations were enslaved, abused and killed. In 1542, colonial laws were introduced to protect the Amerindians. In 1552 a book about the conquistadors' abuse was published by Bartolomé de las Casas. It was called a Short Account of the Destruction of the West Indies.

The American mainland

In the early 1500s the Spanish began to conquer the mainland of Central and South America. Vasco NÁºÁ±ez de Balboa, a Spanish merchant, was considered the first of the conquistadors. Balboa is best known as the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. However, his expedition did not end well as one of his rivals, the newly appointed governor of Darien (Panama) had him executed. Today, Panama honours Balboa by naming its monetary unit, the balboa, after him.

America’s timeline
300 - 900 The Mayan civilisation.
900 - 1200 The Toltecs and Chichimec peoples establish the city of Tula.
1100 - 1530 The Inca civilisation.
1345 -1530 The Aztec civilisation.
1492 Christopher Columbus arrives in Latin America.
1494 Treaty of Tordesillas.
1497 Voyage to North America by John Cabot.
1500 Discovery of Brazil by Pedro Cabral.
1519 Magellan sails around the world.
1519 -1521Conquest of New Spain (Mexico) by Hernán Cortés.
1524 Council of the Indies established in Spain.
1531 - 1538 Conquest of Peru by Francisco Pizarro.
1549 Permanent settlement of Brazil begins.
1550 - 1690s Jesuits explore the South American interior.

Write these events on the board or projector, but in the WRONG order. The students should try to recall the correct order in their notebooks

Conquering the Aztec and Inca Empires: The processes of conquest and colonialism

In the mid-fifteenth century, the powerful empires of the Aztecs and Incas dominated large areas of the Americas. There was no trade across the Atlantic Ocean at this stage.

Before European exploration and colonisation, Arab merchants traded with the countries in the East. The Arabs had a monopoly or complete control over the overland trade routes across the land to the East. The Arabs charged high taxes on all the trade that passed through the overland routes they controlled. These high taxes made the price of products like gold, silk and spices that Europeans wanted, more expensive for them to buy. Europeans wanted to find their own sea route to the East that did not cross Arab lands. The Europeans knew very little about Africa and the East, and in order to find another trade route, they went on voyages or journeys of exploration across the sea.

European countries fought with each other on sea and land to control the trade routes and the countries they discovered. There were two ancient civilisations in central and South America which the Spanish were particularly interested in. Both the Inca Empire of Peru and the Aztec Empire of Mexico held many riches. The Aztecs were the first great Native American civilisation with which the Spaniards came into contact.

Conquering the Aztec Empire

Before we can examine the conquest of the Aztecs, we need to understand who the Aztecs were.

The Aztecs

In 1345 the Aztecs travelled south to central Mexico, where they founded a large lakeside city called Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs were a warlike, bloodthirsty poeple and through their violent conquests of other groups they grew wealthy and powerful. They demanded that those they conquered pay tribute to them. By the early 16th century, the Aztecs dominated Mexico, especially the southern part. It is believed that the Aztec empire of over 10 million people had a strong military tradition and a well established trading network. Merchants travelled through the whole empire, trading as well as serving as ambassadors, spies and sometimes soldiers. The Aztec monetary system was based on cocoa seeds, and the markets were very well organised. More than 60 000 people came to the market in the capital daily. When the Spanish came to Mexico and saw these markets, they declared that they had never seen anything like it in Europe.

A mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957), showing his impression of the building of the Aztec city Tenochtitlán. Source:

The Aztecs were influenced by an earlier civilisation, the Toltecs, who ruled the area between 900 and 1200 AD. Toltec workers and merchants taught the Aztecs how to make objects from feathers and gold, how to interpret the stars and how to use a calendar. The Aztecs knew how to restore land from the lake – in other words, to dry up sections of the lake in order to expand the islands. This was done by piling mud onto beds of straw inside wooden fences. In this way, they also built new land areas. They followed a hieroglyphic writing system, and wrote documents on paper made from tree bark. Documents included tax lists, legal documents, religious texts and historical writings. These documents reveal much about the Aztecs.

The modern Mexican flag bears an eagle with a snake in its beak. The symbol comes from an Aztec legend. According to this legend, the gods had promised the Aztecs land they would be able to recognise through the presence of an eagle sitting on a cactus, holding a snake in its beak. They found the eagle on an island in Lake Texcoco, where they settled.

According to another Aztec legend, the god Quetzalcoatl had been defeated by an evil god and disappeared into the eastern (Atlantic) sea. He had foretold that he would return from the same sea, leading a group of white-skinned, bearded men, to defeat his enemies. When the Spaniards came from the east, white-skinned and bearded, the Aztecs did not fear them. Instead, they welcomed them as their deity and his group of warriors, which made it so much easier for the Europeans to conquer the Aztecs.

Who were the Mayans, and how do they relate to the Aztecs?
Between 300 and 900 AD, the Mayas were a very strong and developed civilisation in Central America. They are often compared to the Romans. They had a complicated hieroglyphic writing and a mathematics system, and their calendar was more exact than the European's calendar. Civil wars and invasions weakened the mighty empire. In around 1200 the Mayas were conquered by the Toltecs, who absorbed Mayan architecture, art and religion. Even later, the Aztecs took over and at the same time took over aspects of Toltec and so Mayan culture.
By the time the Europeans came, the grand Maya civilisation had collapsed. All that was left were small groups. These were unable to unite against the European invaders, and the Spaniards conquered the groups one by one.

Conquest Case Study 1

Modern-day Mexico City is situated on the site of the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The Emperor headed a very complex society that was ruled partly by religion and fear.

The Aztecs believed they were the chosen people of the gods. Their chief god was Huitzilpochtli who represented the sun. The victorious sun rose each morning, drove off the moon and stars and captured the daytime sky. But the sun's victory was short-lived. Each afternoon and evening, the sun sank in tired defeat. For the sun to successfully rise each day, it had to be nourished with human blood. This blood was supplied by victims were captured during war. The Aztecs therefore went to war continuously. Those who were defeated and incorporated into the Empire were never happy with Aztec rule.

The Aztec calendar had 365 days. It was used more than 100 years before the Gregorian calendar (used in our world today) and shows the level of sophistication of Aztec science. The Aztec calendar is recorded as a carving on the Aztec sun stone currently on exhibit in Mexico City. The sun stone is filled with symbols that refer to human sacrifice. At the centre is a sacrificial knife sticking out from the mouth of the central deity and talons on either side of the deity's face which grasp human hearts.

The Spanish king sent a general called Hernando Cortes to find the Aztecs. The Aztecs lived in a fertile valley 2000 metres above sea level, the water from the surrounding mountains watered their crops, which included maize, cotton, beans and chili peppers. The capital was at Tenochtitlin (today called Mexico City), a vast city with causeways and bridges and huge stone buildings and temples. Their leader at the time that Cortes and the Spanish soldiers arrived, was Montezuma. Montezuma at first welcomed the Spanish as the Aztecs thoughts they might be holy men, but they were soon to realise this was not so. The Spanish conquistadors were only interested in the gold.

Cortes came with 16 horses (which the Aztecs had never seen before), 14 cannons, steel swords and crossbows. This made them stronger in battle against the Aztecs. The Spanish were also made stronger by being able to get help from the oppressed enemies of the Aztec Empire who were willing to assist them.

They were also helped by an interpreter called Dona Marina. Her birth name was Malinalli. After a battle with Cortes, the defeated native Americans gave her to Cortes as a peace offering. The Spanish baptised her into the Catholic faith and she was renamed. She learnt Spanish, lived with Cortes and later gave birth to his son. She could speak the Aztec language and told Cortes everything she knew about the Aztecs. In 1521, after two years of resistance, the Aztec Empire fell to the Spanish. Montezuma was killed, and many Spaniards and Aztecs lost their lives.

The following information will still be developed for this ‘Aztec’ topic:
  – Slavery and its impact on the Aztecs
  – Consequences on the Aztecs
Please contribute activities and content for this section by clicking on the ‘contribute’ button.

Conquering the Inca Empires

Before we can examine the conquest of the Incas, we need to understand who the Incas were.

The Incas

Around 1100 AD, the Incas came to the Andean region from the south and founded the city Cuzco. They began the expansion of their empire by conquering small groups in what is today southern Peru, and eventually subjugated the entire Andean coast and highlands. At its height, the Incan empire stretched from modern northern Ecuador to central Chile and included territory in modern-day Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina.

1_2_diasAn Inca artifact: a knife handle made from solid gold. Source:

The emperor was called 'Inca', and it was believed that he was the son of the sun, the most important Inca god. Society was organised in clans. The Incas had a vast network of roads that crossed the whole empire, altogether about 40 000 km long. This made it easier for the Inca's officials to travel through the empire to keep an eye on all the clans. However, since they had no horses or wheeled vehicles, all travelling was done on foot. Messages and news were sent across the land in a relay system: there were small buildings called 'tambos' all along the roads. A messenger would run with his news to the next tambo, where another messenger would take over. The Incas had a system of writing called 'quipo'. It was not an alphabet, but a system of strings and knots. A number of strings hung from a main string, and each one was knotted. Each knot or series of knots represented an event or a number. In Inca society, every person had to work without pay, because labour was seen as a form of tax.

Shortly before the Spaniards came to Peru, the Inca emperor died. This was followed by a civil war between his two sons. The Spaniards, led by Francisco Pizarro, arrived in 1532 and were able to exploit the situation and capture the already weakened state.

Conquest Case Study 2

Francisco Pizarro was the Spanish conqueror of Peru. He left Spain for the West Indies in 1502 and lived on the island of Hispaniola. He was also part of Balboa’s expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Pizarro heard tales of a southern land rich in gold. During the 1520s Pizarro led two expeditions down the west coast of South America and saw the golden ornaments worn by Native Americans of the Inca Empire of Peru. He got permission from the emperor of the King of Spain, Charles V to conquer this land and become its governor. Pizarro raised an army of 180 men to take with him to Peru. Atahualpa, the Inca, or emperor, was captured by the Spaniards, who held him hostage. His followers were tricked into paying a large ransom of silver and gold. Instead of sparing his life as promised, Pizarro executed Atahualpa on 29 August 1533 and took control of the town of Cajarmaca.

Pizarro then marched south and captured the Inca capital at Cuzco. After looting Cuzco, the Spaniards went on to establish control over the rest of the land of the Incas. Without an emperor to lead them, the Incas found it hard to resist the Spanish invasion. They were divided among themselves and their weapons were no match for the guns of the Spaniards. Only one Inca community, which was high up in the mountains and difficult to reach, held out against the conquistadors. It survived as the last Inca stronghold until the Spanish conquered it in 1572 and executed its ruler, Tupac AmarÁº.

In 1535, Pizarro set up a new capital at Lima and, as governor, was responsible for bringing many settlers to Peru. Most settlers were involved in mining the vast amounts of silver and gold that existed in Peru. The Spanish were allowed to force the Incas to work for them for low wages. They used forced labour in the army, to build new cities and to mine silver and gold.

You have already heard that conquistadors often fought among themselves. Diego de Almagro, Pizarro’s former partner, fought with Pizarro over Cuzco. The power struggle between Pizarro and Almagro led to the War of Las Salinas in 1538. Almagro was executed, but his son, known as Almagro the Lad, continued the war. Pizarro was murdered in his palace in Lima by followers of Almagro in 1541.

1_2_atahualpaThis is a portrait of Atahualpa, drawn from life, by a member of Pizarro's detachment, 1533. Source: wikipedia

The following information will still be developed for this ‘Incas’ topic:
  – Slavery and its impact on the Incas
  – Consequences on the Incas
Please contribute activities and content for this section by clicking on the ‘contribute’ button.

Resistance to Spanish colonialism

The Aztec and Inca Empires covered very large areas and consisted of millions of people. It was only after long and bloodied battles that they gave up their capitals to the invaders. The European diseases that reduced the population of the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands also affected the Aztecs, and to a lesser degree the Incas.

The Spanish were less successful against the people who occupied other areas of Central and South America. These people attacked unexpectedly and took advantage of the fact that they outnumbered the Spanish. In 1542 the Spanish founded the city of Mérida in the north-western corner of Mexico, but they controlled only some of the areas around this city. The biggest part of the peninsula was still ruled by Mayan communities.

Resistance Case Study 3

The Spanish encountered particularly fierce resistance from the Auracanian tribes. After the conquest of the Inca Empire, a Spanish force moved southward to found the city of Santiago in 1541. They gained control over the fertile central region of present-day Chile. The Araucanians lived in the southern part of Chile, and resisted Spanish control until well into the nineteenth century. The Spanish built a line of forts to defend their settlements against continuous Araucanian attacks and raids. The Araucanians adapted to the European style of warfare by making spears to fight the Spanish while they were on their horses. The Araucanians were finally defeated at the end of the 1870s and forced to live in reservations.

Resistance Case Study 4

A slave revolt in Haiti: A distinct type of resistance in exploitation colonies was the slave revolt. The most dramatically successful was the Haitian Slave Revolt, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, led by Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture. The revolt, lasted from the early 1790s until 1804, when Haiti received its independence. There were many other slave revolts throughout the Caribbean and Brazil. Some of these revolts failed and many slaves who had participated in revolts were brutally tortured and executed.

Decide as a class whether you will do this activity on your own or in groups of 5-6 people.
Find as much information as you can on ONE of the following civilisations: the Mayas, Aztecs or Incas. Use books in the school or community library as well as the internet. (There are some links in this section that you can use.)

The consequences of Colonisation of European expansion on the American indigenous population and the World

The arrival of the Europeans and their conquest and colonisation of the Americas transformed this land forever. Its people were subjugated and with them, hundreds, thousands of years' culture and civilisation were suppressed. Many died of the new diseases the Europeans brought with them. Indigenous religions did not die out, but often had to make way for the European's new religion of Christianity. Shortly after the colonisation, a phenomenal trade in humans began across the Atlantic Ocean, as slaves were needed to work the land and plantations in the Americas. The trans-Atlantic slave trade become one of the most significant and for many, traumatic, periods in world history. But colonial rule was not destined to last in the Americas. By the end of the 18th century, the European settlers of American colonies began to rebel and press for independence. The American War of Independence, or American Revolution, freed the 13 eastern coast colonies from British rule, and paved the way for the establishment of one of the biggest 20th century powers, the United States of America (USA). This revolution was soon followed by liberation struggles all over Latin America in the beginning of the 19th century. By about 1826, most of the Latin American countries were free from colonial rule.

The effects of conquest and colonisation on Native Americans

Tthe arrival of the Europeans in America meant that the numbers of the native populations diminished rapidly. For example, the first Native American group that Columbus came into contact with was the Arawaks of Haiti. At that time, about 1502, there were 250 000 Arawaks. But barely 50 years later, had their numbers drastically been reduced to 500. Another 100 years later, they completely died out. The reasons for the decline of the Native American population include warfare with Europeans, enslavement by the conquerors, and the diseases brought from Europe. These diseases might not have been life-threatening in Europe, where over centuries people had built up natural immunity to diseases like chicken pox and measles. But these diseases were unknown in America, and so the Native Americans had not had chance to build up any resistance to them. Those that were fatal to even Europeans, like smallpox, proved to be especially dangerous to the Native Americans. In some cases whole villages were wiped out by European diseases and it is believed that far more than half the Native American population died in this way. Other diseases that were brought by the Europeans include dysentery, malaria and hookworm.

Not only did millions of Native Americans die. The European conquests meant the end of civilisations that were more advanced than those in Europe. Gold, silver and other treasures were taken and a most of these minerals was sent to Europe. Filled with religious zeal, the conquistadors often destroyed temples and other buildings and burned documents, so that a great deal of cultural and historical materials was lost.

Enslavement was also common. When the Europeans began to settle in America, they needed slaves to work on their cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations. In many cases whole communities were violently enslaved, like the Arawaks encountered by Columbus. Weakened by disease, the Native Americans were unable to cope with hard manual labour. The Europeans needed alternative labour and Africans slaves proved to be the answer. African workers were strong, worked hard, were immune to many diseases and were easily obtained.

How colonization led to the practice of slavery and its impact on these societies

The trans-Atlantic slave trade brought millions of African slaves to the Americas. The trade began in the early 16th century. By the end of the 17th century, about 30 000 slaves were being shipped to the Americas each year. By the end of the 18th century, the number had increased to nearly 80 000 per year. In total, about 11 or 12 million African slaves were taken to the Americas. The Europeans bought the slaves from African traders, mostly in West Africa. The slaves were often prisoners-of-war taken in battles between indigenous African groups. The slaves were kept in forts on the African coast before being transported to America. The conditions in the forts and on the ships were horrendous. There was little space to move or even to go to the bathroom. About 13-30% of the slaves died on the ships. In America, they were auctioned off to their future owners. These slaves often had to work for 10-11 hours per day, six days per week. The conditions and treatment of the slaves were not the same everywhere in the Americas. In some areas, like Brazil, they were often treated worse than in the American South, because there were many more slaves and so they could be easily replaced if they died. There were a number of revolts against slave masters, but they were usually crushed violently.

1_2_diasDetail from a mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, which shows an African slave brought to the New World. The mural is called 'Colonial Domination'. Source:

Early in the 19th century, the slave trade was banned. This led to some improvement in the treatment of slaves to ensure that they would survive longer. Later that century slavery was banned completely. The legacy of the slave trade and slavery lasted much longer. For many African Americans, who do not know where their African ancestors came from, the slave trade means that a huge part of their background remains a mystery.

Slavery in the New World played an enormous role in the economies of America and Europe. People became very wealthy through their plantations, worked by slaves, and through trade with Africa and Europe.

For more on History of Slavery and early colonisation


Another important aspect of conquest and colonisation is the religion brought by the Europeans, namely Christianity. There were several reasons why the Europeans were eager to conquer the Americas. One was South America's legendary treasures in gold and silver. The other was religious zeal. Many Spaniards claimed to have gone to the Americas to spread the gospel and convert the Native Americans. It is debatable whether religion or greed played the most important role. For example, in Mexico, the conquistador Hernán Cortés was welcomed by the Aztec emperor, probably because the Aztecs believed that it was their god Quetzalcoatl returning from the eastern sea, as he had promised. The emperor sent Cortés presents of gold and silver. In return, Cortés made alliances with the Aztecs' enemies, destroyed Aztec temples and cities, and erected crosses, a symbol of Christianity, on the ruins. Furthermore, when the Aztecs saw the crosses they became even more convinced that this was the return of their god, since he was the god of crossroads. When the Aztecs realised their mistake, it was too late. The Spaniards defeated them in battle, and finally had not only their land, but their gold and silver as well.

But not all Christians who came to the Americas were out to conquer and suppress. Not too long after the Europeans set foot in the Americas, the first Christian missionaries arrived. The Jesuits were especially active in South America. When Portuguese descendants in Brazil wanted to enslave the indigenous people to work on their sugar plantations, Jesuit priests defended them against the slave masters. The missionaries also did not always impose their own European languages on the people they wanted to convert, and in some cases preached and worked in certain indigenous languages. This helped to expand the local languages and put them into writing.

Many of the indigenous people did convert. Today, Christianity is the main religion of Latin America and the Roman Catholic Church the main church, although traditional religious practices still exist.

The famous statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is 30 metres high and was built in the 1920s. Today, Christianity is the main religion in Latin America.

Write an essay of 1-2 pages on the following topic:
‘Despite the negative aspects of conquest, the colonisation of America was positive in the long run because it transformed America from a primitive and undeveloped land to one that is civilised and developed’.
Do you agree?
Remember to structure your essay well. There has to be an introduction, stating the question which you will answer in the essay; a body in which you give your argument; and a conclusion that brings your argument together and give your opinions on what was asked whether you agree with the statement or not. Your answer does not necessarily have to be right or wrong because you are presenting your opinion with evidence and historical views to support it!

Summary of Consequences on the indigenous society and the world

Consequences on the indigenous society

  • Disease and forced labour drastically reduced the population of Central America. It is estimated that the population of Mexico was reduced by ninety per cent in the first fifty years after the arrival of the Spanish.
  • In Central and South America, the Spanish settlers eventually intermarried with the Incas and Aztecs as most of the settlers were men. The people of mixed racial descent are known as mestizo and now form the majority of the population.
  • The official language of the former Spanish colonies in the Americas is Spanish but there are many people who still speak their indigenous languages.
  • The indigenous people were also converted to Catholicism which remains the dominant religion in Central and South America.

For further reading on ‘Spaniards in a new world: 16th century AD’ visit :

Consequences on the World

The expansion of European trade resulted in the colonisation of five continents over a period of five centuries. Using military force, each of the European colonial powers dominated world trade at different times. When one colonial power became weak, another challenged it and replaced it as the dominant power.

What was the effect of colonialism on the World

  • Colonial empires became rich and powerful as their empires grew in size. However, colonies were expensive to run, especially if wars were involved. Wars were fought between rival empires who wanted the same land or to defeat rebellious indigenous inhabitants.
  • Europe, in particular Britain, was able to industrialise because of raw materials obtained from colonies and because colonies provided markets for manufactured goods. Slavery did not start because of colonialism; slavery has always existed. However, European powers were able to exploit their colonies and increase their wealth by using slave labour or very cheap indigenous labour.
  • Colonialism did not cause racism, but it helped to reinforce the belief that Europeans were the dominant race and therefore superior and that other races were subordinate and therefore inferior.
  • On the other hand, colonialism provided opportunities for people of different races, religions and cultures to meet, live and work together. The result of this has been an exchange of ideas, technology and traditions.
  • The spread of Christianity throughout the world was made possible by missionary activities. This was assisted by the expansion of European colonial empires.
  • Church and state worked together to change the indigenous belief systems of the people they ruled. Colonial expansion also brought Christianity into conflict with Islam as European powers challenged Muslim rulers and traders.

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