The Continental System (1806)

Since 1793, the French government had carried out policies intended to ruin British commerce; it hoped in this way to eliminate or at least dampen the British will to join in and its ability to finance military coalitions against the French. Napoleon ultimately tried to exclude Great Britain from all commerce with the continent.


From our imperial camp at Berlin, 21 November 1806.

Napoleon, Emperor of the French and King of Italy, in consideration of the fact:

1. That England does not recognize the system of international law universally observed by all civilized nations.

2. That she regards as an enemy every individual belonging to the enemy's state, and consequently makes prisoners of war not only of the crews of armed ships of war but of the crews of ships of commerce and merchantmen, and even of commercial agents and of merchants traveling on business.

3. That she extends to the vessels and commercial wares and to the property of individuals the right of conquest, which is applicable only to the possessions of the belligerent power.

4. That she extends to unfortified towns and commercial ports, to harbors and the mouths of rivers, the right of blockade, which, in accordance with reason and the customs of all civilized nations, is applicable only to strong places. That she declares places in a state of blockade before which she has not even a single ship of war, although a place may not be blockaded except it be so completely guarded that no attempt to approach it can be made without imminent danger. That she has declared districts in a state of blockade which all her united forces would be unable to blockade, such as entire coasts and the whole of an empire.

5. That this monstrous abuse of the right of blockade has no other aim than to prevent communication among the nations and to raise the commerce and the industry of England upon the ruins of that of the continent.

6. That, since this is the obvious aim of England, whoever deals on the continent in English goods, thereby favors and renders himself an accomplice of her designs.

7. That this policy of England, worthy of the earliest stages of barbarism, has profited that power to the detriment of every other nation.

8. That it is a natural right to oppose such arms against an enemy as he makes use of, and to fight in the same way that he fights. Since England has disregarded all ideas of justice and every high sentiment, due to the civilization among mankind, we have resolved to apply to her the usages which she has ratified in her maritime legislation.

The provisions of the present decree shall continue to be looked upon as embodying the fundamental principles of the Empire until England shall recognize that the law of war is one and the same on land and sea, and that the rights of war cannot be extended so as to include private property of any kind or the persons of individuals unconnected with the profession of arms, and that the right of blockade should be restricted to fortified places actually invested by sufficient forces.

We have consequently decreed and do decree that which follows:

Article I.– The British Isles are declared to be in a state of blockade.

Article II.– All commerce and all correspondence with the British Isles are forbidden. Consequently letters or packages directed to England or to an Englishman or written in the English language shall not pass through the mails and shall be seized.

Article III.– Every individual who is an English subject, of whatever state or condition he may be, who shall be discovered in any country occupied by our troops or by those of our allies, shall be made a prisoner of war.

Article IV.– All warehouses, merchandise or property of whatever kind belonging to a subject of England shall be regarded as a lawful prize.

Article V.– Trade in English goods is prohibited, and all goods belonging to England or coming from her factories or her colonies are declared a lawful prize.

Article VI.– Half of the product resulting from the confiscation of the goods and possessions declared a lawful prize by the preceding articles shall be applied to indemnify the merchants for the losses they have experienced by the capture of merchant vessels taken by English cruisers.

Article VII.– No vessel coming directly from England or from the English colonies or which shall have visited these since the publication of the present decree shall be received in any port.

Article VIII.– Any vessel contravening the above provision by a false declaration shall be seized, and the vessel and cargo shall be confiscated as if it were English property.

Article IX.– Our Court of Prizes at Paris shall pronounce final judgment in all cases arising in our Empire or in the countries occupied by the French Army relating to the execution of the present decree. Our Courts of Prizes at Milan shall pronounce final judgment in the said cases which may arise within our Kingdom of Italy.

Article X.– The present decree shall be communicated by our minister of foreign affairs to the King of Spain, of Naples, of Holland and of Etruria, and to our other allies whose subjects like ours are the victims of the unjust and barbarous maritime legislation of England.

Article XI.– Our ministers of foreign affairs, of war, of the navy, of finance and of the police and our Directors General of the port are charged with the execution of the present decree so far as it affects them.

(Signed),
Napoleon.
Done by the Emperor,
Hugue Maret,
Ministerial Secretary of State

Source: James H. Robinson, ed., Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, vol II, no. 2: The Napoleonic Period (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1902), pp. 19-21.