The Continental System of Napoleon was to stop all raw materials going to British industries and to keep away all the manufactured goods emanating from England for the European markets. France Emperor, Napoleon launched the System. He thought the Continental System will close down all British manufacturers and their factories. As a result, the laborers will lose their jobs. England would at the same time, will not get any food supplies for her growing population. Thus, the people of Britain would starve and force their government to yield before Napoleon and sue for peace.

For this gigantic gamble, the ports of the continent had to be hermetically sealed against all British goods. Only then would the English be forced to yield. Napoleon well understood the difficulties that his plan involved and he was confident of overcoming all such difficulties.

Why Napoleon Introduces the Continental System?

The Continental System of Napoleon was the step to paralyze the export and import of England trade with the rest of the European Countries.

Reasons for the Continental System of Napoleon:

England Alone Defies Napoleon

Napoleon had won resounding victories on the continent of Europe. He had defeated Austria, Italy, and Prussia. He had changed the very map of the Germanies. Also, he was the creator of the Confederation of the Rhine. He had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire. Even Russia had fallen in line with him at Tilsit. But there was one nation and one country which did not bow before Napoleon. This was England; Napoleon’s scheme for the invasion of the British Isles had ended in smoke. Rather, England had won great and decisive naval battles against France.

The battle of the Nile; the battle of Copenhagen and the battle of Trafalgarohad destroy not only the French and her allied navies but had also shattered all hopes of Napoleon for an invasion of the island. Napoleon was, however, determined to humiliate England by the destruction of her commerce. Napoleon contemptuously called her “a nation of shopkeepers”. Thus, one of the main reasons to capture England was her commerce and wealth. He wanted to cut the very roots of England, as only then could England be cowed down.

Napoleon declares continent closed to Britain

Napoleon put his plan on economic warfare against England into action by the famous Berlin Deere issue in November 1806. Thus, he declares a state of blockade against England. As a result, no ship was allowed to go to England and all French and allied Ports of Europe were closed down to British Trade and Commerce.

Besides, if British merchandise is imported into an allied country, it will be confiscated and destroyed. Napoleon further strengthened this blockade of England by his subsequent decrees from Warsaw (January 1807) and Milan (December 1807).

The Milan decrees went still further and announced that even ships of the neutral nations, sailing from British or occupied ports, were liable for confiscation. Also, French privateers face the authority of confiscation.

Yet, another order was issued in this direction by Napoleon which is famous as the “Fontainbleau Decree of October 1810″. By this order, British goods smuggled into the state of Europe, dependent upon France, were to be publicly burnt. Thus it was established by Napoleon, what has come to be known as the “Continental System of France”.

However, this has been the most stupendous proof of Napoleon’s incapacity as a statesman. It was ultimately one of the reasons to bring about the collapse of his empire.

England Resists Successfully

Though Napoleon tries to attack England, she did not budge even an inch and her people kept up the morale. The British government accepted the French challenge and replied by issuing four successive “Orders in Council” (January-November, 1807). By these orders, all ships engaged in trade with France or her dependent allies were to be captured. Neutral ships in certain cases were to touch at some British port.

In other words, if European countries were to have any trade outside, it could only be with Britain and at no cost with France. Strict enforcement of these orders greatly irritated the neutral nations, particularly the United States. Britain could enforce its orders better than Napoleon. Thus, England resisted very heroically and successfully Napoleon’s attempts to starve her. The British people always stood behind their government in their grim struggle against the continental despot.

The System Enforced Vigorously

Napoleon himself vigorously enforced his own decrees in France, in the confederation of the Rhine, in Italy, and in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Besides, Austria and Prussia had been so decisively beaten that they could not raise their heads against Napoleon. Friendly Russia had agreed, at Tilsit, to carry out the will of Napoleon. Even, his own brothers, Joseph (1806-08) in Naples and Jerome in Westphalia carried out the orders of their imperial brother. Napoleon’s sister Elise helped him in Tuscany.

When Sweden defied Napoleon, she had to pay a heavy price in war and then, agreed to close down all Scandinavian ports to the British goods. There was one solitary exception to all this subservience to an all-powerful monarch. It was Louis (1806-1801), King of Holland people which they had to face under this System. He was made to abdicate in 1810 and Holland was annexed to France. Similarly, when Pope Pius VII (1800-23) showed a little Independence, the treatment meted out to him was not a different one. Ultimately, when Pope excommunicated Napoleon, he was deprived of his temporal rule and taken as a prisoner to Fontainebleau.

There he lived with all the insults and disgrace till 1814. The fate of Portugal was also the same one when she tries to have her own way. Napoleon’s horde fell upon her. She had close economic and political relations with England. When she rejected the demands, Napoleon, cut all her commercial relations with England, she was invaded by the French forces. Portugal’s capital Lisbon was occupied on December 1, 1807. Prince John, the regent and the royal family found asylum In Brazil, from where they returned to Portugal only after the fall of Napoleon.

Difficulties of the Continental System of Napoleon

France was not powerful on the high seas and for that reason alone, she could not maintain effectively the continental blockade of British goods. At the same time, Napoleon had to face other difficulties from the people and the governments of friendly and dependent continental countries. So much was the opposition to this system from certain quarters of Europe that he had to make certain exceptions to his decrees. Actually, Europe required British goods more badly than the British needed its exports.

Moreover, there were large-scale smugglings with the connivance and corruption of the customs officials. So gigantic became the task of maintaining and enforcing the “Continental System“ in the European states that Napoleon had to subordinate much of his politics and military actions to this economic warfare against Britain.

Failure of the Continental System of Napoleon

Napoleon had to face insurmountable difficulties in maintaining the continental blockade of English goods. He did his best in his economic war against Britain. But there were forces over which he had no control. The whole of Europe has torn asunder with war and destruction. As a result, all industries had come to a standstill and British goods were eagerly sought. Even Napoleon’s own troops needed British cloth for their uniforms.

Thus Napoleon had sometimes winked at the smuggling of the British goods into his own country. The consequence was very little and serious. He could not enforce the system to an extent that Britain could be starved but at the same time, it was greatly irritating to the European countries asked to fall in line with it. Actually, this policy of Napoleon was based upon the idea that every ally of the French Emperor was willing to sacrifice the most pressing material interest to enable him to wreak his personal vengeance upon a nation that had dared to thwart his will.

How did Continental System bring the downfall of Napoleon?

Napoleon’s policy of economic blockade against England is known as the Continental System. Napoleon saw that England was his greatest enemy. She was standing in the way of his ambition to become the master of Europe. If he was to establish his authority over Europe, he must bring England to her knees. He had earlier tried to destroy her Eastern Empire by the Egyptian campaign but failed. The British Navy destroyed the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile. His plan of direct invasion of England also could not become successful because of the Battle of Trafalgar.

What he failed to do in a direct way now he wanted to achieve it in an indirect way. He hit upon a new device. He called the English “a nation of shop keepers”. Also, he saw that the real cause of the prosperity of Britain was her flourishing trade and commerce. So he wanted to bring England under his control by destroying her trade and commerce. The Continental System was thus economic warfare launched by Napoleon against England.

In 1806 Napoleon issued his famous Berlin Decrees which prohibited the entry of British goods in the continental parts of Europe. By the Milan Decree of 1807, he proclaimed that all neutral ships coming from British ports or carrying British goods were liable to be seized by the French. The Berlin and Milan Decrees together formed what a known as Napoleon’s Continental System.

But the Continental System of Napoleon was a total failure. For want of a superior navy, it became physically impossible for Napoleon to enforce his Continental system. On the other hand, Great Britain replied to his measures with “Orders in Council” which prohibited the Continental States from trading with France. While Napoleon could not give full effect to his Continental System, England by Virtue of her naval power enforced a blockade of French ports. English Navy guarded English ships and trade of England went on as usual. But France suffered badly for the non-functioning of her ports. Thus the Continental system acted as a boomerang upon Napoleon. Instead of crippling the trade of England, it weakened the position of Napoleon. Manufactured goods became scarce in France and prices of essential commodities shot up. Napoleon’s rule became extremely unpopular.

Finally, the continental system became one major cause for Napoleon’s downfall. By forcing the continental states to obey his command, he created a host of enemies for France, Portugal, Spain, the Pope, and Russia – all refused to obey his continental system, as the life of their people depended on the supply of British goods. Instead of seeing the practical side of the matter, Napoleon lost his temper. He invaded Portugal, placed his brother on the Spanish throne, quarreled with the Pope and imprisoned him, and finally invaded Russia. Thus the Continental System involved him in these entire arbitrary and unjust academic which in the long run brought about his downfall.

Facts About Napoleon Bonaparte:

Napoleon was the prison after the battle of Waterloo in 1815 at St. Helena under the British Government.

He was the Emperor of France in the year 1804.

The first battle fought by Napoleon was the Battle of Marengo (on 14th June 1800).

His wife’s name is Josephine Beauharnais. She was from Vienna, Austria.

He would be able to turn out the British in India with the help of the Marathas and Tipu Sultan.

He sold Louisiana to the United States of America in the year 1803.

In 1789, when the French Revolution broke out, he was just 20 years of age.

Source: Mohammed Rafi Komol & O. Jnanendra Singh

A Guide to History of Modern Europe 1789-1945.

Imphal, Khumanthem Babudhon, 2018,


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