A History of Napoleon's Continental System

Napoleon in his study, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812
The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812. Wikimedia Commons

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Continental System was an attempt by French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to cripple Britain. By creating a blockade, he had planned to destroy their trade, economy, and democracy. Because British and allied navies had impeded trade ships from exporting to France, the Continental System was also an attempt to reshape the French export market and economy.

Creation of the Continental System

Two decrees, that of Berlin in November 1806 and Milan in December 1807 ordered all allies of France, as well as all countries who wanted to be considered neutral, to cease trade with the British. The name ‘Continental Blockade’ derives from the ambition to cut Britain off from the entire continent of mainland Europe. Britain countered with the Orders in Council which helped cause the War of 1812 with the USA. After these declarations both Britain and France were blockading each other (or trying to.)

The System and Britain

Napoleon believed Britain was on the verge of collapse and thought damaged trade (a third of British exports went to Europe), which would drain Britain’s bullion, cause inflation, cripple the economy and cause both a political collapse and a revolution, or at least stop British subsidies to Napoleon’s enemies. But for this to work the Continental System needed to be applied for a long time over the continent, and the fluctuating wars meant it was only truly effective in mid 1807-08, and mid 1810-12; in the gaps, British goods flooded out. South America was also opened to Britain as the latter helped Spain and Portugal, and Britain’s exports stayed competitive. Even so, in 1810-12 Britain suffered a depression, but the strain didn’t affect the war effort. Napoleon chose to ease gluts in French production by licensing limited sales to Britain; ironically, this sent grain to Britain during their worst harvest of the wars. In short, the system failed to break Britain. However, it did break something else...

The System and the Continent

Napoleon also meant his ‘Continental System’ to benefit France, by limiting where countries could export and import to, turning France into a rich production hub and making the rest of Europe economic vassals. This damaged some regions while boosting others. For instance, Italy’s silk manufacturing industry was almost destroyed, as all silk had to be sent to France for production. Most of the ports and their hinterlands suffered.

More Harm than Good

The Continental System represents one of Napoleon’s first great miscalculations. Economically, he damaged those areas of France and his allies which relied on trade with Britain for only a small increase in production in some areas of France. He also alienated swathes of conquered territory which suffered under his rules. Britain had the dominant navy and was more effective in blockading France than the French were in trying to cripple Britain. As time passed, Napoleon’s efforts to enforce the blockade bought more war, including an attempt to stop Portugal trading with Britain that led to a French invasion and the draining Peninsular War, and it was a factor in the disastrous French decision to attack Russia. It is possible that Britain would have been harmed by a Continental System that was properly and fully implemented, but as it was, it harmed Napoleon far more than it harmed his enemy.

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Wilde, Robert. "A History of Napoleon's Continental System." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-continental-system-1221698. Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 25). A History of Napoleon's Continental System. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-continental-system-1221698 Wilde, Robert. "A History of Napoleon's Continental System." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-continental-system-1221698 (accessed March 30, 2023).