Continental System

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The Continental Blockade (French: Blocus continental), or Continental System, was the foreign policy of Napoleon Bonaparte against the United Kingdom during the Napoleonic Wars. As a response to the naval blockade of the French coasts enacted by the British government on 16 May 1806, Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree on 21 November 1806, which brought into effect a large-scale embargo against British trade.[1][2] The embargo was applied intermittently, ending on 11 April 1814 after Napoleon's first abdication. The blockade caused little economic damage to the UK, although British exports to the continent (as a proportion of the UK's total trade) dropped from 55% to 25% between 1802 and 1806.[3] As Napoleon realized that extensive trade was going through Spain and Russia, he invaded those two countries. His forces were tied down in Spain—in which the Spanish war of independence was occurring simultaneously—and suffered severely in, and ultimately retreated from, Russia in 1812.

The Berlin Decree forbade the import of British goods into any European countries allied with or dependent upon France, and it installed the Continental System in Europe. All connections with Britain were to be cut, even the mail. British merchants smuggled in many goods and the Continental System was not a powerful weapon of economic war.[4] There was some damage to British trade, especially in 1808 and 1812, but British control of the oceans led to replacement trade with North and South America, as well as large scale smuggling in Europe. The loss of Britain as a trading partner also hit the economies of France and its allies.[5] Angry governments gained an incentive to ignore the Continental System, which led to the weakening of Napoleon's coalition.[6]


Great Britain was the central important force in encouraging and financing alliances against Napoleonic France. Napoleon was frustrated in his repeated attempts to defeat Britain. Attacks that involved naval power had all failed, with the systematic defeats of the combined French and Spanish navies. After the decisive defeat at Trafalgar, Napoleon made no attempt to rebuild his Navy. He turned instead to economic warfare, planning to ruin the British economy. It was thought that Britain depended completely upon trade with Europe for its prosperity, so cutting off trade with continental Europe would ruin the British economy and force it to sue for peace. A blockade was impossible because the Royal Navy controlled the seas, but if Napoleon controlled the ports of Europe, he could prevent British products from landing.[7]

The Royal Navy imposed a naval blockade of the French and French-allied coasts, on 16 May 1806. Napoleon resorted instead to economic warfare. Britain was Europe's manufacturing and business center as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Napoleon believed it would be easy to take advantage of an embargo on trade with the European nations under his control, causing inflation and great debt to undermine the British strength. His position was strengthened by the Fall of Berlin in October 1806, bringing swathes of Prussia under his control.

In November 1806, having recently conquered or allied with every major power on the European continent, Napoleon, in retaliation to the British Order-in-Council of 17 May 1806 blockading all ports from Brest to the Elbe, issued the Berlin Decree forbidding his allies and conquests from trading with the British.[8] Britain responded with further Orders in Council issued on 10 January and 11 November 1807.[9] These forbade French trade with Britain, its allies or neutrals, and instructed the Royal Navy to blockade all French and allied ports, and to prevent all shipping whether neutral or not. Napoleon responded again with the Milan Decree of 1807, declaring that all neutral shipping using British ports or paying British tariffs were to be regarded as British and seized.

Napoleon's plan to defeat Britain was to destroy its ability to trade. As an island nation, trade was its most vital lifeline. Napoleon believed that if he could isolate Britain economically, he would be able to invade the nation after its economic collapse. Napoleon decreed that all commercial ships wishing to do business in Europe must first stop at a French port in order to ensure that there could be no trade with Britain. He also ordered all European nations and French allies to stop trading with Britain, and he threatened Russia with an invasion if they did not comply as well. His orders backfired in the Iberian Peninsula, especially in Portugal (being allied to Britain), setting off the Peninsular War. He pushed Russia too hard, both in terms of the Continental System, and in his demands for control over part of Poland. His attempted punishment of Russia through a massive invasion 1812 was one of the famous military disasters in world history, and set the stage for Napoleon's final downfall.


Great Britain

The System had mixed effects on British trade. The embargo encouraged British merchants to seek out new markets aggressively and to engage in smuggling with continental Europe. Napoleon's exclusively land-based customs enforcers could not stop British smugglers, especially as these operated with the connivance of Napoleon's chosen rulers of Spain, Westphalia and other German states.[10][11] British exports to the Continent fell between 25% to 55% compared to pre-1806 levels. However, trade sharply increased with the rest of the world, covering much of the decline.[12][13]

Britain, by Orders in Council, prohibited other countries (that is, its trade partners) from trading with France. The British countered the Continental system by threatening to sink any ship that did not come to a British port or chose to comply with France. This double threat created a difficult time for neutral nations like the United States. In response to this prohibition, the U.S. government adopted the Embargo Act of 1807 and eventually Macon's Bill No. 2. This embargo was designed as an economic counterattack to hurt Britain, but it proved even more damaging to American merchants. Together with the issues of the impressment of foreign seamen, and British support for Indian raids in the American west, tensions led to a declaration of war by the U.S. in the War of 1812. This war, not Napoleon's blockade, sharply reduced British trade with the United States.[14]

The British economy suffered greatly in 1810 to 1812, especially in terms of high unemployment and inflation. This led to widespread protest and violence, but the middle classes and upper classes strongly supported the government, which used the army to suppress the working class unrest, especially the Luddite movement.[15][16]

France and Continental Europe

The episode seriously hurt France itself. Shipbuilding, and its trades such as rope-making, declined, as did many other industries that relied on overseas markets, such as the linen industries. With few exports and lost profits, many industries were closed down. Southern France, especially the port cities of Marseille and Bordeaux, as well as the city of La Rochelle, suffered from the reduction in trade. Moreover, the prices of staple foods rose in most of continental Europe.[17]

Napoleon's St. Cloud Decree in July 1810 opened the southwest of France and the Spanish frontier to limited British trade, and reopened French trade to the United States. It was an admission that his blockade had hurt his own economy more than the British. It had also failed to reduce British financial support for its allies.[18] The industrialized north and east of France, and Wallonia (the south of today's Belgium) saw significantly increased profits due to the lack of competition from British goods (particularly textiles, which were produced much more cheaply in Britain).

In Italy, the agricultural sector flourished;[19] but the Dutch economy, predicated on trade, suffered greatly as a result of the embargo. Napoleon's economic warfare was much to the chagrin of his own brother, King Louis I of Holland.

Scandinavia and the Baltic region

File:Vice-Admiral James Saumarez.jpg
Vice-Admiral James Saumarez was the commander of the Royal Navy in the Baltic campaign of 1808–1814 that secured British trade to the region.

Britain's first response to the Continental system was to launch a major naval attack on the weakest link in Napoleon's coalition, Denmark. Although ostensibly neutral, Denmark was under heavy French and Russian pressure to pledge its fleet to Napoleon. London could not take the chance of ignoring the Danish threat. In the Second Battle of Copenhagen in August–September 1807, the Royal Navy bombarded Copenhagen, seized the Danish fleet, and assured control of the sea lanes in the North Sea and Baltic Sea for the British merchant fleet.[20][21] The island of Heligoland off the west coast of Denmark was occupied in September 1807. This base made it easier for Britain to control trade to North Sea ports and to facilitate smuggling. The attacks against Copenhagen and Heligoland started the Gunboat War against Denmark, which lasted until 1814.

Sweden, Britain's ally in the Third Coalition, refused to comply with French demands and was attacked by Russia in February and by Denmark/Norway in March 1808. At the same time, a French force threatened to invade southern Sweden, but the plan was stopped as the Royal Navy controlled the Danish straits. The Royal Navy set up a base outside the port of Gothenburg in 1808 to simplify operations into the Baltic Sea. The Baltic campaign was under the command of admiral James Saumarez. In November 1810 France demanded that Sweden should declare war upon Great Britain and stop all trade. The result was a phoney war between Sweden and Britain. A second navy base was set up on the island of Hanö in the south of Sweden in 1810. These two bases were used to support convoys from Britain to Gothenburg, then through the Danish straits to Hanö. From Hanö the goods were smuggled to the many ports around the Baltic Sea. To further support the convoys, the small Danish island of Anholt was occupied in May 1809. A lighthouse on the island simplified navigation through the Danish straits.

Russia also chafed under the embargo, and in 1810 reopened trade with Britain. Russia's withdrawal from the system was a motivating factor behind Napoleon's decision to invade Russia in 1812, which proved the turning point of the war.

Portugal and Spain

Portugal openly refused to join the Continental System. In 1793, Portugal signed a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain.[22] After the Treaty of Tilsit of July 1807, Napoleon attempted to capture the Portuguese Fleet and the House of Braganza, and to occupy the Portuguese ports. He failed, as Queen Maria I of Portugal took her fleet and transferred the Portuguese court to Brazil with a Royal Navy escort. The Portuguese population rose in revolt against the French invaders, with the help of the British Army under Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington. Napoleon intervened, and the Peninsular War began in 1808. Napoleon also forced the Spanish royal family to resign their throne in favor of Napoleon's brother, Joseph.


  1. David Stephen Heidler; Jteanne T. Heidler (2004). Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Naval Institute Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-1-59114-362-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Jean Tulard, Napoléon, Hachette, 2008, p. 207
  3. Alfred Fierro; André Palluel-Guillard; Jean Tulard. Histoire et dictionnaire du Consulat et de l'Empire. Robert Laffont. ISBN 2-221-05858-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics 1763–1858 (1999) pp. 305–10
  5. Alexander Grab, Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe (2003) pp. 29–33
  6. François Crouzet, "Wars, blockade, and economic change in Europe, 1792–1815." Journal of Economic History (1964) 24#4 pp. 567–88 JSTOR 2115762.
  7. Louis R. Gottschalk, The Era of the French Revolution. (1715-1815) (1929) p. 373.
  8. "Documents upon the ContinentaI System 1806".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Holberg, Tom. The Acts, Orders in Council, &c. of Great Britain (on Trade), 1793–1812
  10. On smuggling see Roger Knight, Britain against Napoleon" (2013) pp 402–403.
  11. Gavin Daly, "Napoleon and the ‘City of Smugglers’, 1810–1814." Historical Journal 50.2 (2007): 333-352.
  12. J.M. Thompson,Napoleon Bonaparte: His rise and fall (1951) pp. 235–40
  13. François Crouzet, "A serious cause of social and economic dislocation," Frank Kafter and James Laux, eds., Napoleon and his times (1989) pp-179-192.
  14. Knight, Britain against Napoleon" (2013) pp 433–436.
  15. Knight, pp 410–412.
  16. Francois Crouzet, Britain Ascendant (1990) pp 277–279.
  17. Eli Heckscher, The continental system: an economic interpretation (1922) pp. 266-294.
  18. Eric A. Arnold, Jr. "Napoleon's St. Cloud Decree, 3 July 1810: Text and Analysis," Proceedings of the Western Society for French History (1998), Vol. 25, pp. 49–54
  19. Alexander Grab and Charles F. Delzell, "The Kingdom of Italy and Napoleon's Continental Blockade," Consortium on Revolutionary Europe 1750–1850: Proceedings (1988), Vol. 18, pp. 587–604.
  20. A. N. Ryan, "The Causes of the British Attack upon Copenhagen in 1807." English Historical Review (1953): 37–55. in JSTOR
  21. Thomas Munch-Petersen, Defying Napoleon: How Britain Bombarded Copenhagen and Seized the Danish Fleet in 1807 (2007)
  22. Portugal; José Ferreira Borges de Castro (Visconde de); Julio Firmino Judice Biker (1857). Supplemeto á Collecção dos tratados, convenções, contratos e actos publicos celebrados entre a corôa de Portugal e as mais potencias desde 1640. Imprensa nacional. Portugal. Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros. pp. 19–25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Aaslestad, Katherine B., and Johan Joor, eds. Revisiting Napoleon's Continental System: Local, Regional and European Experiences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Wide-ranging essays by experts excerpt
  • Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction 1789–1850 (1970), Chapter 2
  • Broers, Michael. Europe Under Napoleon (IB Tauris, 2014).
  • Crouzet, François. "Wars, blockade, and economic change in Europe, 1792–1815." Journal of Economic History 24#4 (1964): 567–588. in JSTOR
  • Godechot, Jacques, et al. The Napoleonic era in Europe (1971) pp 126–139, 156–159.
  • Gottschalk, Louis R. The Era of the French Revolution. (1715-1815) (1929) pp. 373–399. online
  • Heckscher, Eli. The continental system: an economic interpretation (1922), the only global survey of the Continental System; online
  • Knight, Roger. Britain against Napoleon" (2013) pp 386–416.
  • Mowat, R. B. The Diplomacy of Napoleon (1924) pp 190–206 online
  • O’Rourke, Kevin H. "War and welfare: Britain, France, and the United States 1807–14." Oxford Economic Papers 59.suppl_1 (2007): i8-i30, uses econometrics to argue Britain fared better than either France or the United States.
  • Rose, J. H. "Napoleon and English Commerce." English Historical Review 8#32 (1893): 704-25. online.
  • Ruppenthal, Roland. "Denmark and the Continental System." Journal of Modern History 15.1 (1943): 7–23. in JSTOR
  • Sloane, William M."The Continental System of Napoleon" Political Science Quarterly (1898) 12#2 213–

External links