History Optional Paper- 2 Solution – 2010: Q.6 (c)

Q.6 (c) To what extent did Napoleon’s economic war with England become his undoing?


Napoleon’s economic war with England started mainly with the Continental Blockade (or Continental System) which mainly began in 1806 with Napoleon’s Berlin Decree, which banned British ships from entering European ports.

Britain, full of savvy traders, made a concerted effort to undermine the Continental System by contracting out its shipments to neutral vessels. Napoleon next issued the Milan Decree in December 1807. This harsh decree, aimed against smuggling, stated that neutral ships that stopped in Britain before landing in Europe were subject to confiscation.

Aims of the blockade:

(1) To defeat and subjugate Britain. Napoleon’s aim of dominating whole Europe would have been incomplete without defeating powerful Britain.

(2) Since Britain had powerful navy and France lacked naval power, she could not have been defeated in the sea battle. So, the economic blockade was aimed to cause economic hardship in  Britain (as she was dependent on the export). This would have forced Britain to surrender.

How Napoleon’s economic war with England become his undoing?

(1) The Continental Blockade was an impossible scheme. Not every country could bear the innumerable stresses by following this scheme. Britain was supplier of many high quality goods at cheaper price. Most of the European countries including France depended British goods and they could not possibly live without these goods. In 1807 Napoleon himself had to purchase fifty thousand overcoats from Great Britain through Holland.

(2) After the supply of British goods was stopped, people had to face great difficulties and they began to oppose this scheme vehemently. Napoleon lost the sympathy of people. Not only the people of Europe raised their voice against Napoleon, he also lost the sympathy of the middle-class people of France, who had made him.

(3) It was impossible for France to control the vast sea and European coast without a powerful fleet and huge manpower. Cooperation of all European countries was also difficult to get as everyone wanted British goods. Britain retaliated and imposed her own blockade on France and allies of France. She was more successful due to her powerful navy which hurt Napoleon badly.

(4) The smuggling of goods became widespread in the entire Europe and Napoleon could not check this black marketing due to his weak navy.

(5) The entire Europe was disturbed by this scheme of Napoleon and various countries began to conspire against France. Napoleon had to wage wars against many countries for implementation of this scheme. The names of Russia, Spain and Holland need special mention. This scheme was the root cause of the struggle between Napoleon and the Pope of Rome. Consequently all these countries turned into his deadly foes.

(6) During the years in which the continental ports were increasingly shut against British ships, she was able to develop new markets overseas. To make the system effective he had to extend his territorial conquests and gain control of more and more of the continental coastline. But such further aggressions only intensified British resistance and threw more of Europe into active hostility. It was a vicious circle of conquest and resistance, which British trade could survive so long as the other continents of the world were open to it. The Continental System had to be virtually abandoned in 1813 because it was a failure.

Continental System would have been more effective if the following factors would not have contributed contributed in its failure:

(1) England was short of corn due to blockade but Napoleon continued to supply corn at high rates. He presumed that England had little wealth which will be reduced all the more by making purchases of corn at high rates which would result in an economic crisis England. Had he stopped the supply of corn completely, people might have begun to starve and would have forced authorities of England for a treaty but Napoleon by supplying corn, was a contributing factor to the failure of this scheme.

(2) Napoleon had overconfidence in his intelligence and abilities. He wanted obedience from all quarters without any ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. His overweening pride and bloated ego were the chief reasons for the failure of this scheme. Continental System was based on the fundamental error that Napoleon’s subjects would sacrifice their personal comforts to enable him to crush his hated and invincible enemy, Great Britain, which was economically indispensable to Europe.

Though there were many other reasons of the fall of Napoleon like: his continuous wars, weakness on naval power, Russian campaign, Spanish misadventure, rise of nationalism in Germany, Italy & Spain, economic exploitation of of conquered nations etc but some of these reasons were directly or indirectly caused due to the Continental System.

Hence, Napoleon’s economic war with England, in spite of causing some initial economic problems in Britain, was overall a misconceived idea which became one of the main reasons of Napoleon’s undoing upto a great extent.

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