Napoleon’s Continental System

Napoleon’s Continental System

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

Great Britain was never able to field an army that could match in size most of those that fought for or against Napoleon on Continental Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. She did, however, gain mastery of the seas that, particularly following the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, remained largely unchallenged until the First World War over 100 years later. Britain also had enormous wealth – thanks to well-developed trade with her colonies abroad and elsewhere – which enabled her to encourage other European powers to continue the struggle against the emperor with large sums of cash to help pay for their immense armies. Indeed, the use of the Royal Navy from 1806 to blockade French ports and those of her allies seriously hurt France’s economy and, by 1807, when Napoleon was virtual master of Europe, the British continued to remain a thorn in his side. For the French emperor something clearly had to be done, and this he did with the introduction of the so-called ‘continental system’.

The continental system was effectively an embargo against British trade with Europe, which had its origins in the Berlin Decree of November 1806; an official order that forbade any country allied with – or otherwise dependent upon – France to do business with Britain. Napoleon hoped to strangle Britain economically in order to knock her out of the war; economic warfare being another potent weapon in his arsenal. Later, in the Milan Decree of December 1807, the emperor gave authorisation to any French warship or privateer to capture neutral vessels that were sailing out of British ports, whether they be in Britain itself or in one of her overseas possessions. There was, however, a glaring gap in his economic wall in the form of Portugal and, to a lesser extent, Spain; the former still enjoying good relations with Britain while the latter appeared reluctant to adhere to the system. Napoleon later tried to close this gap by going to war with both countries in what became known as the Peninsular War of 1808-14.

It would not be long before the effects of the continental system began to bite on Britain’s economy, and the British would be forced to respond to counter the threat; her first act being the seizure of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen in November 1807. Technically, Denmark was a neutral country, but France was putting her under immense political pressure to make her ships available to the emperor, who, having lost much of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, was unable to effectively counter the Royal Navy. The British operation, however, was a success and the shipping lanes of both the North Sea and Baltic were secured for use by British merchant vessels.

Further problems for Napoleon’s economic plans ensued when the French army operating on the Iberian Peninsula began to suffer a growing number of defeats at the hands of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the later duke of Wellington, who slowly pushed the emperor’s troops out of Portugal and then Spain, until finally invading France in 1814. By the time of his first defeat and subsequent abdication, Napoleon had failed totally to subdue either country of the Iberian Peninsula, which he himself later described as his ‘Spanish ulcer’ and blamed for his other disasters.

Sweden, a previous ally of Britain, also refused to comply with Napoleon’s decrees as early as 1808, which led to her being invaded by Russia in what became known as the Finnish War of 1808-09. Despite this, Russia, too, would eventually reject the system in 1810, following her own economic problems caused by the embargo. It is, perhaps, this act of Russian defiance towards the emperor’s wishes that led to his ill-fated campaign of 1812, which saw the virtual annihilation of a very sizeable French army during its retreat from Moscow.

In addition, the British merchants simply ignored the embargo anyway, finding ways to smuggle in their goods and trade on the black market while also seeking out alternative markets in both north and south America. Ultimately Napoleon’s continental system failed and Britain remained economically and militarily undefeated until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

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