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The Age of George III

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The Continental System

After the death of Pitt in 1806, Britain continued to fight the French for a further nine years. Between 1807 and 1810, Napoleon made his first mistakes. Only Britain and Russia were left outside the French empire and therefore were the only countries left for him to defeat. Napoleon believed that he had to defeat Britain because she was keeping alive the coalitions against France through "Pitt's gold" - payments to European monarchs to continue fielding armies against the French.

Napoleon decided to attack the "nation of shopkeepers" by

The Continental System was Napoleon's attempt to stop Britain's export and re-export trade with Europe and it was outlined in two Decrees issued by the Emperor.

In November 1806 he issued the Berlin Decrees, which declared that Britain was in a state of blockade and that no vessel coming directly from Britain or her colonies would be allowed into any port under French control.

However, so long as Russia refused to implement the Continental System, British goods could still get access to Europe via the Baltic Sea and Adriatic Sea. This therefore accounts for the clause in the Treaty of Tilsit, signed between France and Russia in 1807, where the Czar promised to implement the Continental System.

Britain's reply to the Berlin Decrees were the 24 Orders in Council, which confined Europe's trade to neutral shipping. Britain controlled and taxed neutral trade with Europe by making all vessels proceed via British ports. The Orders in Council were opposed by merchants, bankers and industrialists in Britain from 1808. Thomas Attwood presented Birmingham's protest against the Orders, which were abandoned in 1812 - as was the Continental System, since it was doing more harm than good to France.

In March 1807, Napoleon issued the Milan Decrees, which ordered that all ships touching British ports before sailing into French territorial waters were to be confiscated. This meant that any country obeying Britain's Orders in Council were punished by the French. Neutral countries, the most important of which was America, had to risk detention by the Royal Navy or confiscation in Napoleon's ports. America placed an embargo on trade to both countries in 1807 which hit Britain hardest because France had virtually no merchant marine and her navy was landlocked following the British victory at Trafalgar in 1806.

The Continental System caused great hardship in Britain (but see Rotherham and Trafalgar)

In Britain in 1810, five companies went bankrupt and there was a spate of business failures and strikes throughout the country. In 1811,

Napoleon failed to take advantage of Britain's partial collapse and even allowed European grain to be sold in Britain in return for gold, which he needed desperately. Trade restrictions were lifted and Britain reaped the benefits because smuggling began again.

However bad the Continental System was for Britain, it was disastrous for Napoleon because it backfired on him. French custom' revenue fell and European nations were starved of British colonial goods: coffee, sugar, tobacco, cocoa, and cotton textiles. Apart from cotton, the imported goods were addictive luxuries and people resented the French depriving them of these commodities. Replacement items such as sugar beet and linen were not tolerated. The British blockade of European ports and the scarcity of goods created a rise in European nationalism.

Napoleon slackened the restrictions, which immediately benefited Britain - so he again tightened up the regulations in 1811. This caused both his allies and his vassal stated to revolt. Russia refused to implement the Continental System and this led directly to the Moscow Campaign of 1812. The rise of nationalism in Europe gave Britain the opportunity to fight France on land. Britain used peoples against the French government of occupation, allowing Britain to follow up her naval victories with the army.

The Spanish state of Asturias, with a population of half a million, took on the might of France. The people turned against the French because they resented French occupation and the removal of their king, Charles IV, in 1808 so that Joseph Bonaparte could have the kingdom. Britain sent her army to help the Spanish. Eventually Sir Arthur Wellesley ( the Duke of Wellington) commanded the British army in the Peninsula.

Napoleon found himself faced with a war on two fronts: after 1808, Spain was in rebellion against French rule and in 1812, Napoleon launched the Moscow Campaign because the Czar refused to implement the Continental System after 1810.


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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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