HERNÁN CORTÉS' expedition of conquest, an undertaking of world-wide significance, was aimed with astonishing accuracy at the heart of the native civilizations of Central America. The manæuvres of his fleet prior to the landing at Vera Cruz, upon which he set his seal by scuttling the ships, show how systematically the white conqueror and inheritor of the Aztec realm reconnoitred the foreign coasts before deciding to stake everything upon a single throw: his rapid march to the Valley of Mexico and against Tenochtitán, the present-day Mexico city. The enterprise proved as successful as it had been daring. Within two years the Aztec capital was firmly in Spanish hands. This meant that by 1521 Cortés controlled a territory stretching from the Pánuco river in the north to the border of what is now Guatemala; at the same time certain neighbouring provinces which were not under Aztec rule, namely the so-called Kingdom of Michoacán in the north-west and the areas to the south inhabited by the Maya and Quiché peoples, fell easy prey. Twenty years later the conquerors held this large territory under their sway, whereby they suppressed the natural customs of the indigenous population and made them subject to a Catholic-ridden Spain which was already moving toward a mercantile system based on colonial exploitation.
At no other point on the new continent would it have been possible for these entirely alien worlds to have encountered one another with such dramatic and far-reaching results. True, Corte's and his men still believed themselves to be on the trail of a fabulous India and did not appear to be surprised to find, in this unknown land, admittedly alien yet basically familiar conditions: a political structure, a network of cities, market centres, trade routes and a people subject to a rigorous social code and adept in many crafts; in short, an empire which could be taken over. How differently they would have fared had they set foot upon the mainland north of the twenty-second parallel or on the Caribbean coast deep in the south, beyond what had since ancient times been the zone of highly developed civilizations, and where at the beginning of the sixteenth century the Aztecs were the decisive power! These unique civilizations had invariably been built up and succeeded one another in this same area--a comparatively narrow strip of land which joins the two American continents.