How Much Did Napoleon's Continental System Hurt the UK Economically?


Ad Honorem
Jun 2013
During the Napoleonic Wars we all know Napoleon rather than invading Britain decided to try to economically starve them out by encouraging mainland European countries to refuse to trade with them. While we do know it ultimately didn't kill them and the so-called Continental System fell apart along with Napoleon's empire, during the few years it was in place, how much did it actually effect the British economy? Was there a noticeable "hit" so to speak that the UK wasn't able to adjust to until after the economic blockade fell apart?


Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
as a result of the continental "blockade "the continent was starved of a critical product
this was very serious , Britain controlled not only a good part of the production but also the sea
sugar was an vital luxury
the Prussians had been fooling around with Sugar beet , Napoleon appointed a commission of scientists to go to Silesia to investigate
factories were started ,
this was a bit slow but the financial advantages were great
the Prussian state got clever and taxed the gross weight of the beet , driving the growers to increase the sugar content by selective breeding

as a result , West Indian sugar lost its premium ,
by the mid 19th century , slaves sugar plantations were marginally profitable
and the slave trade lost one of its market
the British , making a virtue of necessity , became an opponent of the Atlantic slave trade
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Feb 2019
With the creation of the Continental System Britain started to look towards overseas markets, examples being after the Napoleon invaded Portugal Britain's trade with Brasil increased greatly, going from 1.3 million pounds in 1807 to 6.3 million pounds in 1809 (Davey, page 178.). An attempt was made in 1806 and 1807 to invade Rio de La Plata and take over the Spanish colonies in South America.

Napoleon made an attempt to raid the British Caribbean colonies in 1806, though this was stopped at the Battle of San Domingo. Expeditions were also sent to the Indian Ocean and elsewhere in attempts to disrupt British commerce.

The Cotton production in Britain rapidly increased since 1785 until 1809, going from 8,000 to 42,000 tons ( Woolf, page 145.) while it only doubled in France: going from 4.000 tons to 8.000 tons. The system was violated regularly, some nations like Sweden joined the system but de facto didn't follow it, trading with Britain and even allowing British ships to dock and repair in ports such as Gothenborg. Smuggling was very profitable for continental merchants and Britain benefited from that, to combat this Napoleon put forward trade licenses which would import and export ''necessary goods'' to and from Britain at a certain tax, this was a contradictory policy that violated the Continental System and helped Britain greatly as it provided them with much needed grain and wheat. There were illegally imported British goods worth roughly 750.000 Francs being sent to the Netherlands between 1801 and 1809. (Woolf, page 151.)

Britain had economic problems by 1812 and was entering the ''post-Napoleonic depression'' as gold and supplies began to somewhat run dry. The system somewhat hurt Britain and caused notable supply shortages at certain points but hurt France more. There were some notable hits to Britain but all in all Britain survived and managed to expand to new markets.


Literature used:

Napoleon's Integration of Europe by Stuart Woolf.
In Nelson's Wake: The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815 by James Davey.
Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe by Alexander Grab.
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Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
Not enough to do the job it was supposed to do at least.

The British could explore other options, and smuggling was so rampant it undercut it seriously further. While demonstrating a general problem early modern states had of effectively policing its borders. In effect continental Europe could not be cut off in practical terms, and the profit margin on smuggling ensured bans on imports would be circumvented.
Apr 2014
Istanbul Turkey
There were considerable distruption and labourer agitation somewhat in Midlands , especially radicals in cloth sector who agitated and caused quite bit stir in big industrial towns like Birmingham and Manchester and some increased brigande on rural areas but not in any level of civil turmoil to cause trouble for British war policy and foreign policy aim of getting rid of Napoleonic Empire. Europe under Continental System needed British goods and raw materials from overseas colonies more than British need to make business with them ( Continental System damaged revenue making of British economy though not as much as Napoleon hoped to force British goverment to negotiation table) so smuggling of British merchandise to Europe soared and since prices were determined by supplier in this method , British traders and merchant houses profitted quite a bit. Besides British trade could always find new markets to trade with like Sweden , Spanish Americas after 1808 , Brazil under Porteguise rule (and Portugal itself was the oldest British ally on the continent since 17th century and main entry point of British goods to Continent which made Napoleon mad enough to invade Iberian peninsula) , USA (till war of 1812 and even during wartime between 1812-14 clandestine trade between British and US merchants continued) and Russia after 1812 invasion of Napoleon. (though Russians were already breaking Continental System with consent of Tsar since 1810 and during a lot of business with Britain)

At the other hand Napoleon shot himself at his foot because customs revenue , coastal trade and tax revenue dried up across French Empire , despite sending small overseas sorties to Indian Ocean (where for a while French raiders operating from French naval base Iles Napoleon and Iles France were quite a bit sucessful against East India Company convoys and lone trade ships under British flag ) or Caribbean , these sorties mostly ended in defeat and loss of most of French (and their allies) overseas assets , ships and colonies eventually till 1811. By 1811 all French naval bases in Indian Ocean where French privateers operated from were captured by British along with all French colonies in Caribbean and Haiti. Cape colony in South Africa was captured by a British expedition Dutch colonies in Java were put out of action by Royal Navy. In total most of raw materials like cotton , silk , sugar , coffee , tea etc supply , British merchants had an economic monopoly when Napoleonic Wars ended.
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Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
It hurt France economically more than Britain and hit France in its credibility and political policies quite hard as virtually no one on the continent found following the system beneficial. Eventually, some market dynamics changed as a result of the system but overall it was nearly a total failure.

Maybe if the French navy was competitive with Britain it might have been effective and if part of the plan hadn't been to make France the centre of production in Europe (which harmed many French allies).