Volume II

CHAPTER 28

« We have been compelled, for the good
of our peoples and our allies, to combat
the common enemy with the same arms
as he uses a

gainst us.”

(Napoleon, in his message to the Senate)

 

We ended the previous chapter by explaining how the servile behaviour of the Prussians in general and of Berliners in particular gave Napoleon time to turn his attention to settling matters in his Empire and, more precisely, to an important project which he firmly believed would bring peace to Europe.

 

ENGLAND, THE OBSTACLE TO PEACE

This project was directly aimed against the country which was opposed to peace at the time.

Which country was opposed to peace?

England, who was responsible for provoking and financing unceasing wars on the Continent against Napoleonic France in order to satisfy her insatiable appetite for power.

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Napoleon hesitated before signing the Berlin Decree on conscientious grounds and he only took his decision after England forced his hand by opening the hostilities of economic warfare.

To place events in perspective, we must not forget that between 1793 and 1815, London paid the European monarchies £66,000,000, or one and a half billion francs in francs or (of the time!) to finance the “Napoleonic wars” as they have dishonestly been called.

To neutralize England whose policy was malevolent and hostile towards France, the Emperor had planned an invasion, for as he was in the habit of saying and not without reason, “invading England, would have been a guarantee of peace for a hundred years for France .”

 

This project failed partly because of the lack of ability, and perhaps also, daring of the French naval commanders.

So he had to find another way of cutting down to size the perfidious and dishonourable enemy, for at a time when the word honour was not just an empty word nothing was considered as more despicable than making others fight in your place in order to preserve and develop your own commercial interests.

 

EUROPEAN PORTS CLOSED TO ENGLISH TRADE

Find another way, but which way?

By closing all the ports on the Continent to British commerce and thereby paralysing the country with its unsold goods.

This, however, was by no means a new idea which originated with Napoleon. We first find trace of the concept in a decree of the Convention nationale, as the French Government was then called, dated early 1793, forbidding the importation of British products into France.

We find the same determination to check the frenzied expansionism of British trade in another decree issued four years later under the following government, the Directoire, which made provision for forbidding the access of French ports to ships that had first put in a British port. There was even a clause which aimed at reducing the trade of neutral countries which transported goods manufactured in England.

These attempts had all failed, and as the United States who was among the neutral nations affected by these measures had expressed considerable discontent because of the incidence on her commerce, the First Consul who had no wish to come into conflict with America had it abolished.

Three major events were to finally make Napoleon change his views and adopt a more radical policy with regards to British trade: a defeat, a victory and a British decision.

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The Imperial Navy never fully recovered from the disaster of Trafalgar. From then on,
Napoleon had no choice but to combat his mortal enemy on land. The Continental
Blockade was one of the consequences of the defeat.

The defeat was Trafalgar, on the 21 October 1805, which destroyed the combined French and Spanish fleet. It had ruined French plans of invading of England and left Britain as master in command of the sea. From then on, the Emperor only had one arm left at his disposal to combat France ’s enemy: economic warfare.

The victory, on 14 October 1806, was Jena, which we have just described at length in our previous chapters. This victory also had extremely beneficial consequences, but this time, for Imperial France as the annihilation of Prussia had given Napoleon control of all the German ports on the North Sea and the Baltic through which British goods transited before they were distributed throughout Europe.

However, the Emperor was aware that nothing was further removed from the concept of the right of nations than a measure which/such as this as it would inevitably have repercussions on other neutral nations and he hesitated to restore a measure which had first been “suggested” by previous governments, the Convention nationale and the Directoire.

 

THE ENGLISH GET THEIR BLOW IN FIRST

It was England who with typical lack of scruple – her past conduct which we have already exposed in previous chapters speaks for itself – had given the Emperor the pretext to take the decision a few months earlier….


On the 16 May 1806, the British Government had signed a degree instituting a blockade on all the ports along the coastline of the Continent from Brest to the estuary of the river Elbe.

This measure was so odious that even Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the aristocratic former bishop, and present Minister of Foreign Affairs, for once forgot his usual suave and elegant style when he wrote to the Emperor:

“What can we do against a power which shows such total disregard for every notion of justice, except to forget them ourselves for a moment to compel that power to stop these violations? The right of natural defence allows you to combat your enemy with the arms he uses and to make him a victim of his own rage.”

This infamous conduct was totally in keeping with the cynical and arrogant policy of George III’s government which is perfectly summed up in a phrase uttered by the Prime Minister, William Pitt in 1800, which was just as valid in 1806, when he shamelessly declared that, “all neutral nations must be subjected to the inspection of every single English privateer.”

And he pursued with a statement which is too enlightening to be omitted:

“To abandon the right of inspection [on vessels of neutral nations by English privateers] would allow France to revive her navy and her commerce. England will never abandon these rights [!] which are absolutely essential for the safeguard of the most valuable interests of her Empire. The laws which are invoked by neutral nations are detrimental to our national grandeur and our maritime security: they are a revolutionary principle [sic] of human rights and would make us loose all the advantages for which Britain has exerted herself with so much energy for so long and with so much profit.”

If a neutral nation was bold enough to protest after one of her vessels had been “inspected” and plundered by a British privateer, the same individual considered their protestation as, “insolence.”

As for Pitt’s father, the first Earl of Chatham, a famous English statesman known as Pitt the Elder (1708-1778), he was in the habit of stating:

“Not a single canon shot may be fired on the ocean if such is not our good will.”

Thus for Pitt and his ministers who were no more than tools in the hands of the powerful city merchants, there were no scruples or matters of conscience - for instituting a blockade of France now that she was prosperous and powerful was fundamental to their policy.

 

ECONOMIC WARFARE AGAINST ENGLAND STARTS IN BERLIN

And as the English had taken the initiative, why should Napoleon have been troubled with a case of conscience?

On the 21 November 1806, “At [his] Imperial Camp in Berlin ”, Napoleon signed the famous Berlin Decree which was to mark the onset of a ruthless economic war with England.

Here are the principal terms of the document:

“Napoleon, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, considering:

That England does not respect the laws of nations universally observed by civilized nations;

That she deems as enemy any inhabitant of an enemy state, and in consequence makes prisoner of war not only the crews of armed vessels at war and seizes vessels of the merchant navy and their crews together with the merchants who are travelling for the requirements of their trade;

That she extends to commercial vessels and to the property of private individuals the right of conquest which is only applicable to the enemy State;

That she extends to unfortified towns and ports of commerce, to havens and mouths of rivers the prerogative to implement a blockade which according to law and custom is only applicable to fortified strongholds…;

That this monstrous abuse of the right to blockade has no other aim than to prevent trade between nations and to promote English commerce and trade on the ruins of commerce and trade on the Continent…;

That this conduct by England, worthy in every respect of the first stages of civilization, has been to the advantage of this power and to the detriment of all others powers..;

That it is only natural justice to combat the enemy with his own arms, and to combat him in the manner that he himself combats when he disregards all notions of justice and liberal principles which are the result of human civilisation:

We have decided to apply to England the regulations which she herself has established in her maritime legislation.

The clauses in this decree will continually be considered as the fundamental principles of the Empire until England has acknowledged that the laws of war are the same on land as at sea and that they cannot extend to private property whatever that property may be, nor to persons who are not members of the armed forces and that the right to blockade must be restricted to fortified strongholds effectively defended by forces in sufficient numbers.

In consequence we have decreed and decree the following:

Article 1: the British Isles are declared under blockade

2. All commerce and correspondence with the British Isles are forbidden…

The decree with its eleven articles is interesting in that the articles eloquently reveal the political customs and morality of England at the time.

 

PROSPERITY BASED ON TRADE

The economic arm was effective for England’s prosperity, more than that of any other nation, was based on her commerce and her trade with Europe represented more than a third of her wealth

In a gesture which does him credit, Napoleon sent the text of his decree to the Senate, justifying the serious decision he had just taken in the following terms:

“We have placed the British Isles under blockade and have reluctantly ordered measures to be taken against her. It pained us to make the interests of private individuals depend upon a quarrel of kings and to return, after so many years of civilization, to principles which were characteristic of barbarism in the earliest ages of Nations. But we have been compelled, for the good of our peoples and our allies, to combat the common enemy with the same arms as he uses against us. These resolutions which were imposed by a legitimate sentiment of retaliation were inspired neither by passion nor by hate. What we offered after the dissolution of three coalitions which has contributed so much to the glory of my nation, we offer again today now that our arms have obtained new triumphs. We are prepared to make peace with England, we are ready to do so with Russia [1807 will soon reveal that Russia was not disposed to accept], with Prussia. But it can only be concluded on the basis that no one may claim any right of supremacy with regards to us…”

At the beginning, the Blockade was not a resounding success. Forced to wage war against the Russians who had obligingly declared war on him only to be defeated at Friedland, Napoleon was unable to impose the measure rigorously, and apart from France and the Kingdom of Italy, the system was often to prove inefficient to operate.

As could be expected, the Cabinet in London was not inactive and a Royal Decree, dated 11 November 1807, soon forbade all neutral ships from navigating without first obtaining a licence in London or Malta and paying hefty taxes on their freight.

 

THE MILAN DECREE, NAPOLEON’S REPLY TO LONDON

Shortly after the decision taken in London on 11 November 1807, Napoleon retaliated by another decree, dated 23 November in Milan, by which any ship that obeyed the odious and tyrannical injunction was declared “denationalized and war trophy”.

Among other negative consequences, the blockade encouraged unbridled smuggling which was made easy as the theatres of war in Europe multiplied, constantly requiring more troops thus preventing Napoleon from enforcing his blockade with rigour. It was notably the case with the Peninsular War, for which he had to tie up a great number of excellent troops which would have been better employed in surveying the ports on the North Sea and the Baltic.

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Economic warfare was only used as a last resort and the Continental
System and Blockade meant that every port had to be tightly closed
to English merchant ships. Unfortunately, as a result the volume
of trade in many French ports decreased alarmingly.

 

If its effects on European economies were sometimes negative, by force of circumstance it also compelled the Continent to make a considerable effort industrially to invent substitution products of which many eventually turned out to be very profitable. Beet sugar is probably the most famous of these.

But the most regrettable consequence was that by seriously penalizing the economy of nations (often allied by force) the blockade aroused understandable resentment against the Emperor.

 

A REVEALING QUOTATION

As is ever the case with Napoleon, those who are ignorant of, or more precisely, those who intentionally disregard the context, have never considered his decision as anything more than toy, and more often that not, simply as a “dictator’s” fantasy which was never of any use against the hereditary foe anyway.

The grave financial difficulties which the Continental System provoked on the other side of the Channel inspired French caricaturists. In 1811, popular discontent was growing for the country was almost paralysed with its unsold goods and as labour unrest started to spread riots almost broke out. Had it not been for the Russian Campaign, in 1812, England would have been compelled to accept the peace treaty which Napoleon desired so earnestly for it would finally have brought peace to France and Europe .

The following quotation should lay honest and dishonest doubts to rest as to the efficiency of the measure of retaliation which Napoleon was forced to take against the English.

In a speech he made in the House of Commons, in December 1812, Lord Liverpool declared:

“In this circumstance, Russia has restituted a market of thirty-six million customers to England. She has raised the price of our colonial productions, and brought activity back to our factories. It’s a distinguished service for which we must be eternally grateful.”

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To be continued…