Why Did Napoleon’s Tariff War with Britain Prove so Problematic?

During the Napoleonic Wars, the states allied to or annexed by Napoleon formed a considerable political and economic bloc, known as the Continental System, which the French Emperor intended to exploit in his war against Britain.

Begrudgingly acknowledging that invasion was impractical he resorted to imposing a blockade and trade embargo, prohibiting any interaction between its members and his enemy across the English Channel.

When he was finally persuaded that this strategy was doing more harm to Europe than Britain, he imposed heavy tariffs on British goods, hoping instead to restrict imports and protect exports, and the strategy succeeded to the extent that it devalued Britain’s trade with Europe by between 25% and 55%.

Modern commentators may look no further than this experiment to calculate the relative merits of attempting to compete independently of a much larger bloc.

The Battle of Waterloo was be a watershed moment in European history, finally ending Napoleon's military career and ushering in a new era of relative peace. This is the story of Napoleon's final battle.Watch Now

European disillusionment

The tariffs were far from universally popular however and placed considerable strains on many of the countries compelled to cooperate with it, partly because it failed to take into account their different local conditions and the effects of the embargo and tariff war on their own economies.

Such was the discord that it created, Napoleon had to use all of his considerable skills to coerce its members to participate. When persuasion or threats failed, as in 1810, when the French satellite of the Netherlands showed an unwillingness to cooperate, he annexed it outright. Such brute force however, could have unforeseen consequences.

Napoleon holds a military council during his Russian campaign.

When Russia too, resumed trading with Britain he launched the disastrous invasion of 1812 which led to his ultimate downfall. His long term plans for reshaping the continent in his own image came to an abrupt and ignominious end when another coalition forced him into exile in May 1813.

The Emperor’s downfall

Although he returned again briefly to dominate Europe the following year in what became known as the One Hundred Days, he was finally and decisively beaten at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. This time the Allies were taking no chances and he sailed to the remote British island of St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where he died in 1821.

The Battle of Waterloo was be a watershed moment in European history, finally ending Napoleon's military career and ushering in a new era of relative peace. This is the story of Napoleon's final battle.Watch Now

The subsequent peace settled upon by the Congress of Vienna sought to restore Europe to the community of more or less sovereign states that had existed before the upheavals of revolution and war. France was returned to the borders she held before 1792, and there were many other changes.

The Netherlands regained its freedom as the newly created Kingdom of the Netherlands; France’s erstwhile ally Denmark was punished by the loss of Norway to Sweden, and the Pope was restored to the Vatican and the Papal States. Switzerland was declared neutral, Prussia expanded westwards, and, Congress Poland was created out of Napoleons Grand Duchy.

Napoleon on St Helena.

His Confederation of the Rhine, already under great strain as a result of the pressures of conforming to the Continental System, was dissolved and replaced by the German Confederation.

The result was nearly 50 years of relative peace and prosperity, which only came to an end when the Continent’s great powers fell out again over the subject of who should dominate Europe.

Andrew Hyde co-wrote the three-volume work The Blitz: Then and Now and is the author of First Blitz. He contributed to the BBC Timewatch programme of the same name and to the recent Channel 5 TV documentary on the Windsors. Europe: Unite, Fight, Repeat, will be published on 15 August 2019, by Amberley Publishing.