The economic effects of the Napoleonic period

Between 1792 and 1815, Europe experienced a long period of warfare. The effects of these wars (French revolution – Napoleonic wars) are important because Europe in this period experiences economic developments such as the Industrial Revolution. In addition to the losses of productive potential of some towns and cities due to the military operations, the short-term economic effects of these wars were inflation and the heavy burden of taxation. Conversely the long-term effect of the wars in the Napoleonic period was the dislocation in international trade which affected all the European countries. Trade dislocations were caused not just by the Continental blockade of 1806-1813. There are three main factors that worked during this period towards disturbing traditional trade relations.

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

  • THE MARITIME BLOCKADE OF THE BRITISH. The sea power of the British allowed the imposition of trade restriction upon European countries which were at war with them. This caused a partial or a total interruption of the seaborne trades, which led European industries that were dependent upon international trades in serious difficulties. The blockade made by the British damaged the Continental industries and their relations with the American colonies. At the beginning of the Blockade, Britain allowed trades between the colonies and the European countries just if the goods were carried by neutral ships (mostly American). However, in November 1807, Orders in Council prohibited the indirect trade which neutral ships had been carrying between enemy countries and colonies. By this year, European seaborne trades were totally blocked by the British. Many seaports, such as Amsterdam, Bordeaux and Marseille, faced enormous damages; many industries of these cities and their hinterlands decreased largely their production. Because of the interruption of overseas trades, the war brought about a lasting deindustrialization or pastoralization of large areas. In conclusion, it is recognized that the dislocation or the interruption of Continental seaborne trades, owing sea wars and British blockade, led to a large decrease of the production in the European economy.


  • THE CONTINENTAL BLOCKADE OF NAPOLEON. The response of Napoleon to the British blockade was the continental “self-blockade”. The “self-blockade” had the goal to interrupt all the trade relations between England and the European Continent. The effects of this blockade were not as negative as the consequence of the British blockade. What happened in real was a total block of the imports from England. Although the principal goal of the blockade was that of forcing England into surrender, the real effect that the blockade caused was that of protecting the industries most threatened by English competition. The most important example is the cotton industry. The cotton industry in France, Switzerland and Saxony had an important technological improvement (spinning machine). The protection provided by the “self-blockade” helped many cotton industries without it most probably would have wiped out by the market. On the other hand, the interruption of british imports stopped the introduction of British machineries, that the Industrial revolution was developing. Moreover, there was a huge increase in the prices of raw materials (this, was also caused by the American Embargo). When, after the Vienna Congress of 1814-1815, the blockades were interrupted, the Continental cotton industries faced huge competition by the British and many companies went bankrupt. The only industries, which were not affected by the closing of British competition, were the silk industry, that was too strong, and the iron industry.


  • POLITICAL TERRITORIAL CHANGES. Thirdly, the dislocations of the trades resulted from the redrafted political map of Europe. During the Napoleonic wars, many territorial changes occurred: France annexed many countries, such as Belgium or the left bank of the Rhime, borders both in Germany and Italy changed. Many territorial markets were subjected to drastic changes: on one hand traditional markets disappeared, on the other hand new ones appeared. Some industries benefited from the annexation to France. The products of these industries, such as woollen industries of Belgium, could appeal to all the France customers. In addition to this, many industries faced comparative advantages in labour force. However, on the other hand, others industries were cut off from their traditional markets. This happened to Italian and German industries. The result was a dislocation of trade relations and huge losses for the exporting factories. Switzerland and Berg for example, suffered a lot from the Continental blockade. Their exports fell drastically. In Italy, Napoleon imposed trades just with the France goods, all the others, were cut off. Another important factor is the discouragement of businesses and entrepreneurship activities that the Napoleonic brutal methods caused.

trafalgar_crepin_mg_0579In conclusion, the dislocation of international trades that European Continental countries suffered damaged the economic development of Continental Europe. The Continent overall faced a modest increase in production. This was surely smaller than the British increase. Although there were some economic developments, such as the cotton-spinning, and the freedom of enterprise, it can be said that the impact of the wars created more damages for the European countries than England. Many industries dislocated from the sea areas and developed in areas more protected or more developed. The new economic axis of the continental economy moved from the Atlantic toward the Rhine. This led to the industrial supremacy of the eastern France, the north-western Germany and the Golden Triangle (Paris-Hamburg-Milan). National markets took much more importance due to the dangers that the exports implied. Europe learnt how to use the potentials their internal markets had. The Zollverein of 1834 is an example. The years between 1792 and 1815 have helped the creation of the economic systems that characterized Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This article is a resume of the work of Francois Crouzet: Wars, Blockade and Economic Change in Europe.

Sebastiano Totta



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