An Error of Embargoes: The Failure of Napoleon’s Continental System

“England is a nation of shopkeepers.” A quote mistakenly attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France and the most powerful man in continental Europe for the first decade of the nineteenth century, is in fact a phrase commonly used in the contemporary era to describe Britain’s increasingly consumerist nature as its imperial ambitions expanded. The Napoleonic Wars (1799 to 1815) saw Britain’s primary rival, France, rise to continental hegemony and attempt to challenge this island and its empire, first through military means before choosing an ill-fated economic alternative.

Despite a short-lived peace between Britain and France after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, the two nations had been belligerents ever since the Revolutionary Wars began in 1793, taking conflict beyond the continent and across the globe amongst their respective colonies and territories. Truly a global conflict (that and the Seven Years War have been argued to have been the first types of ‘world wars’), the Napoleonic Wars soon became a seemingly useless struggle against the unrivalled genius of Napoleon. His stunning military victories, such as Austerlitz in 1805, Jena-Auerstedt in 1806 and Friedland in 1807, eventually saw the subordination of continental Europe, with the major powers of Austria, Prussia, and Russia forced into harsh treaties. By 1807, Napoleon had installed family members and allies into most states across Europe, with only Britain remaining undefeated and untouched by the Corsican’s deft imperium.

Britain’s island status had been its chief defensive characteristic for centuries. With its stunning victories at Cape St Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar, the Royal Navy reigned supreme and used the oceans as a mechanism for its economic expansion; its naval supremacy allowed it to diminish its rivals’ commercial capabilities whilst simultaneously establishing new markets across the globe. Its geographical separation from continental Europe rendered any invasion plans by European powers fruitless without control of the seas. The Franco-Spanish fleet’s crushing defeat at Trafalgar in 1805 was the final blow to Napoleon’s plans of conquering Britain, forcing him to instead focus on eastern expansion, proving to be rather unfortunate for Prussia and Austria. It was this realisation of the inability to invade Britain that moved Napoleon to pursue an alternative path of economic destruction.

The Berlin Decree of 1806 established the Continental System; no European nation allied or dependent on the French Empire could trade with Great Britain. This large-scale embargo against British trade was the cornerstone of Napoleon’s foreign policy. As historian Paul Kennedy explained, the war between Britain and France was one of attrition; if British trade collapsed it could not continue to afford the expenditure required to remain a rival power against France. Napoleon saw his Continental System as a chokehold on Britain’s commercial advantage and one which would end in a financially crippled Britain that would be far easier to invade or bring to the negotiating table to extract valuable imperial concessions. The System was further strengthened in 1807 by the Milan Decree that treated all neutral ships that traded or sailed to British ports as violating the Continental System and illegal in nature. However, this virtual blockade on British ports was entirely symbolic; it was a response to Britain’s blockade of French ports which rendered any effort by Napoleon to blockade a British port an impossible task. Lord Erskine humorously encapsulated the situation in the House of Lords in 1808 when he said that Napoleon might as well place a blockade on the moon.

With European trade banned, the British economy inevitably suffered an export crisis. Exports to Europe fell between 25 per cent to 50 per cent in the first few years after the Berlin Decree, yet did not vanish entirely. With many European states reliant on British trade and resentful against Napoleon’s ill-thought embargo, illegal smuggling and trade posts were quickly set up to maintain trade and avoid economic collapse across the continent. Whilst a European export crisis brewed, Britain ironically experienced a boom in non-European exports. Forced to seek out new markets abroad and strengthen existing imperial trade, the Empire filled the commercial vacuum caused by Napoleon. Despite attempting to stifle Britain’s commerce, the Emperor inadvertently caused total British exports to rise from £37.5 million in 1804-06 to £44.4 million in 1814-16.

However, this was not the only failure of the Continental System. Whilst most states remained ambivalent yet compliant with the intention of the System, Portugal remained steadfast in its support of Britain. Living up to their historical reputation as the first major allies to Britain, the Portuguese continued to trade and defied Napoleon’s orders, providing a valuable trading centre through which British exports could continue to find a way in Europe. As a response to Portuguese disobedience, Napoleon committed one of his first major blunders when he decided to invade the nation in 1807 through Spain, sparking off the Peninsula Campaign in 1808. This must not be underestimated in its importance considering the Peninsula Campaign was arguably Napoleon’s Achilles heel. Whilst he focused on campaigns further in the east, the Peninsula Campaigns continued to drain the Grande Armée of valuable troops and resources that would have better served him elsewhere. When the Peninsula Campaign began and British forces, led by Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), combined with Spanish guerrilla forces began to push the French back towards France, few doubted that the Campaign would end in a successful French defence.

More than 4000 miles to the east of Portugal, lay another nation that despised the Continental System: Russia. After a series of military defeats against Napoleon, the Russian Empire had been forced to accept the Continental System with great reluctance from 1807. However, Russian compliance was short-lived, because of the reopening of trade with Britain from 1810 after seeing the devastating impact of the embargo in its own lands. Napoleon’s failure to impose softened trade restrictions on Russia instead of an entire ban was a step too far for a nation that despised the French emperor’s success. Just like the situation in Portugal, Russia’s refusal to accept the Continental System after 1810 was a trigger for Napoleon’s infamous invasion of Russia in 1812: a campaign that ended in the destruction of Napoleon’s Grande Armée; the end of Napoleon’s hegemony across Europe; and the beginning of the War of the Sixth Coalition (with aid from British subsidies), which would result in Napoleon’s abdication in 1814 and exile to Elba. His greatest invasion resulted in his greatest defeat, and Napoleon’s own Continental System was arguably to blame for causing it.

Intending to crush British trade and reaffirm his authority across the continent, the Continental System achieved neither for Bonaparte. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the Schumpeterian creative destruction provoked by the System, Britain capitalised from Napoleon’s foreign policy and came out as the least affected, most confident great power after Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon’s quixotic idea that his System would remain popular and uninterrupted in Europe was his downfall; never had an embargo been ‘imposed’ on such a large scale, and especially against such a dominant economic power. The System itself was more damaging to France and its satellite states than it was to its intended target. If Napoleon were to ever realistically eradicate Britain’s economic hegemony, provoking the nation of shopkeepers’ international customers was not the solution.

Written by Fraser Barnes


Heckscher, E. The Continental System: An Economic Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1918.

James, L. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Abacus, 1994.

Kennedy, P. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. London: William Collins, 1988.

Sloane, W. “The Continental System of Napoleon.” Political Science Quarterly (1898).

Zamoyski, A. Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna. London: Harper Perennial, 2007.

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