Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

Napoleon's Commercial War with Great Britain


From the terms of the secret understanding between Napoleon and Alexander at Tilsit, it is obvious that the former had made up his mind to stand or fall in a last desperate encounter with Great Britain. Secure in her island home, that Power alone had been successful in thwarting Napoleon. Her ships and her money were constant menaces to the accomplishment of his over-lordship of the Continent. England's wooden walls barricaded the principal harbours; by her gold she largely helped to provide the sinews of war which enabled her allies to resist the oppressor. To make war on the sea, to drive it home to the coasts of the enemy, was not possible in the shattered condition of the French marine.

How then was her downfall to be brought about? Before his war with Prussia, Napoleon had taken a preliminary step by compelling Frederick William III. to forbid British vessels the use of the ports of his Kingdom and of Hanover. On the 21st November 1806 he augmented his plan by the stringent regulations of the Berlin Decree, so called because it was issued from that city. His powerful rival was to be cut off from all further intercourse with Europe. No letters were to pass, all commerce was to cease, every British subject in France or any country allied to her, or occupied by French troops, was liable to be declared a prisoner of war.

In theory the United Kingdom was in a state of blockade. By excluding her goods, the sale of which amounted to an enormous sum every year, from the countries of his allies and those directly under his control, Napoleon hoped that she would be forced to give up the unequal contest. Great Britain had retaliated speedily and effectually upon Prussia by seizing several hundred of her ships then lying in British harbours, by blockading her coasts, and by declaring war. She met the Berlin Decree by turning the tables on France, proclaiming France and her allies to be in a state of blockade, and providing that any ship which had not set out from, or touched at, a British harbour should be considered a lawful prize. Napoleon retorted by his Milan Decree of the 7th December 1807, whereby ships that had issued from or touched at British ports were put at the mercy of the French privateers which scoured the seas; "all ships going to or coming from any harbour in Great Britain or her colonies, or any country occupied by British troops, should be made a prize."

The banning of British goods and the fostering of home manufactures were the main planks of the great Continental System. Started with the ostensible purpose of ruining Great Britain, it contributed largely to Napoleon's downfall. In order to make Europe self-contained it was necessary to add conquest to conquest, and an interminable war does not contribute to happiness or make for prosperity. Eventually the French themselves lost their zest for strife, and the real meaning of nationality began to make itself felt in countries whose inhabitants groaned under the intolerable burden of a foreign taskmaster. The System, which Bourrienne calls "an act of tyranny and madness" which was "worthy only of the dark and barbarous ages," was applied to France, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Austria, Russia, Prussia, the Rhenish Confederation, Denmark, Spain and Portugal. If you glance at the map of Europe you will see that there were few States to which the Napoleonic rule in some way or other did not apply. The people who benefited chiefly by this cutting off of England were the smugglers, who plied a magnificent trade both on sea and land. Thousands of persons were engaged in the business of contraband, conveying goods into French territories and assisting the sending of Continental productions to Great Britain. The cost of many articles went up to an extravagant figure. For instance, in France cotton stockings ranged from six shillings to seven shillings per pair; sugar varied from five shillings to six shillings per pound, while the same quantity of coffee sold at from ten shillings to eleven shillings. When we compare the last commodity with the price which obtained in England the difference is astounding. In 1812 coffee could be purchased in Liverpool for one-fifteenth of the price paid in Paris.

"Take especial care," the Emperor wrote to Junot, "that the ladies of your establishment use Swiss tea. It is as good as that of China. Coffee made from chicory is not at all inferior to that of Arabia. Let them make use of these substitutes in their drawing-rooms, instead of amusing themselves with talking politics like Madame de Stael. Let them take care, also, that no part of their dress is made of English merchandise. If the wives of my chief officers do not set the example, whom can I expect to follow it? It is a contest of life or death between France and England. I must look for the most cordial support in all those by whom I am surrounded."

Napoleon's tariff reform, instead of materially benefiting the manufacturers, tended to decrease the consumption of raw materials, because they could not be obtained. When uniforms were required for the French troops in the Eylau campaign they had to be purchased in England! Gradually the barriers began to break down, and by the sale of licenses for the bringing in of hitherto forbidden goods with the proviso that French manufactured goods must be taken in exchange, Napoleon replenished his war chests preparatory to the next campaign. It was the Czar's abandonment of the Continental System which led to the Emperor's disastrous Russian campaign. After that mammoth catastrophe, the whole scheme gradually fell to pieces, but not before all concerned, including Great Britain, had suffered very considerably.

On the Emperor's return to Paris from Tilsit in July 1807, he gave his attention for a short time to home affairs. He had been away for ten months, and the keenest enthusiasm for him was shown on all sides. The Great Nation was indeed worthy of the name which had been given to the French long before Napoleon and his armies had proved their right to it, and his subjects shared in the glamour of victory if not in the spoil. They furnished him with troops, were the props which supported his throne, and if they gave their sons to be victims of war they did not show on festive occasions that they regarded this as aught but a cruel necessity. The French love glory above everything, and to have a son serving with the eagles was a matter of pride to every true Frenchman.

Chancellor Pasquier attended the Te Deum  to celebrate Napoleon's triumphs which was sung at the cathedral of Notre Dame, and he tells us in his Memoirs  that he sat almost opposite the throne; from which point of vantage he studied the Emperor's face with quiet persistency. "He was obviously pleased with the religious sanction," the judge relates, "which, in the eyes of the people, consecrated his glory and omnipotence; he set a price on it, all the greater from the fact that up to the time of his coming it had been absolutely denied to all the works of the Revolution, and that it distinguished him from all that had preceded him.

"I am of opinion," adds the same authority, "that at no moment of his career did he enjoy more completely, or at least with more apparent security, the favours of fortune. Generally, in the midst of his greatest successes, he affected an anxious air, as if he wished it to be understood that his great designs were not yet accomplished, and that people ought not to think that there remained nothing more to do. The observation which I here record has been repeatedly made by those who have come into close contact with him, and who never found him less approachable than at times when it was reasonable to suppose that some most fortunate happening would open his soul to the sentiments of a more expansive good nature.

"Generally speaking, it was better for one having a favour to ask of him to approach him in his moments of worry, rather than on the days of his most brilliant successes. His character did not err on the generous side. I think I see him still, as he was on that day, dressed in his State costume, which, though a little theatrical, was noble and fine. His features, always calm and serious, recalled the cameos which represent the Roman Emperors. He was small; still his whole person, in this imposing ceremony, was in harmony with the part he was playing. A sword glittering with precious stones was at his side, and the famous diamond called the Regent  formed its pommel. Its brilliancy did not let us forget that this sword was the sharpest and most victorious that the world had seen since those of Alexander and Caesar. I remember that M. Beugnot, who sat by me, gave utterance to this thought. Both of us were then far from dreaming that less than seven years would suffice to break it."

The following is an instance in support of Pasquier's statement regarding favours. When the Emperor was deeply engrossed in the Austrian campaign of 1809, one of his servants, named Fischer, went out of his mind. His master refused to fill his post, and paid the poor fellow, who had to be put in an asylum, his full salary of 12,000 francs a year until the end of 1812, when Napoleon gave him an annual pension of 6000 francs. Such kindness on the part of the man who might well be pardoned for forgetting or overlooking some claim, real or fancied, on his goodwill was not rare but common.

Napoleon soon settled down to work, forsaking the hubbub of war for the quietness of the study. He established the University of France, which included every school both large and small, the primary object being to train the children in patriotism. In a word, he sought to dominate the mind. "There will never be fixity in politics," the Emperor averred, "if there is not a teaching body with fixed principles. As long as people do not from their infancy learn whether they ought to be republicans or monarchists, Catholics or sceptics, the State will never form a nation: it will rest on unsafe and shifting foundations, always exposed to changes and disorders." The first effort of the Council of the University was to compile the "Imperial Catechism," one of the articles of the Napoleonic faith being that "Christians owe to the princes who govern them, and we in particular owe to Napoleon I., our Emperor, love, respect, obedience, fidelity, military service, and the taxes levied for the preservation and defence of the Empire and of his throne. We also owe him fervent prayers for his safety and for the spiritual and temporal prosperity of the State."

The founder took the greatest possible interest in the work of the University, delighting to pay surprise visits to the schools. On one occasion he was somewhat nonplussed by a girl of whom he had asked the question: "How many needlesful of thread does it take to make a shirt?" "Sire," she replied, "I should need but one, if I could have that sufficiently long." The Emperor gave the witty scholar a gold chain as a reward.

It was not fated, however, that the arts of peace should for long occupy first place in the attention either of Napoleon or his people, and soon the country was again engrossed in rumours of war. British agents had not been asleep on the Continent, indeed, on the 15th July 1807, less than a week after the signature of peace between France and Prussia, Jackson confided to his Diary  that he had "been positively assured that Bonaparte has sent eventual orders to Denmark to shut the Sound against us." A secret article of the Tilsit treaty was to the effect that should Sweden refuse to close her ports to England and to declare war against her, Denmark should be compelled to fight the former. This was to take effect if the negotiations for peace between Great Britain and Russia failed, but recent research shows that Canning, our Foreign Minister, was not correctly informed on this matter, and believed that the arrangement was to take effect immediately. England determined not to be forestalled, and proposed that Denmark should hand over her fleet until a general peace was proclaimed. The Prince Royal positively refused to entertain the proposition. As a land expedition was contemplated by Great Britain thousands of peasants were enlisted to defend Copenhagen, the garrison there consisting of some 4000 troops ill-provided with artillery. An army of 27,000 strong under Lord Cathcart sailed from Yarmouth in a fleet commanded by Admiral Gambier and disembarked on the morning of the 16th August some ten miles north of the Danish Capital. Batteries were erected, but little actual progress was made until Arthur Wellesley, who had recently returned from India, attacked a corps of 4000 of the militia at Kioge, 900 of whom were killed or wounded, and 1500 taken prisoners. Jackson's description of them is anything but picturesque. "The men are on board prison ships," he writes, "and miserable wretches they are, fit for nothing but following the plough. They wear red and green striped woollen jackets, and wooden sabots. Their long lank hair hangs over their shoulders, and gives to their rugged features a wild expression. The knowing ones say that after the first fire they threw away their arms, hoping, without them, to escape the pursuit of our troops. In fact, the battle was not a very glorious one, but this you will keep for yourself. . . . The Danes have not yet been put to any severe trial; but they show symptoms of a resolute spirit, and seem determined to fight it out with us. They have already burnt their suburbs and destroyed every house that was likely to afford shelter to our people."

The bombardment of the capital began on the 2nd September, 1807, and ended on the 5th, when the British took possession of the citadel and arsenals. The Danish fleet was surrounded and convoyed to England the following month. Jackson thus describes the contest, beginning with the preliminary passage from Landscrona to the fleet off Copenhagen, which occupied two hours and a half.

"It was nearly dark when we sailed out of the harbour; and in about half an hour afterwards we saw a great many rockets in the air, succeeded by shells on either side. The wind was so violent that we heard nothing until we were actually in the midst of the fleet, though we saw everything distinctly. Several shells fell in our direction, and so frightened our boatmen, that they repeatedly urged us to turn back. This, of course, we would not hear of; and at last we succeeded in getting alongside the flagship, where we found the Admiral and my brother in the stern gallery looking at the conflagration—for the city was on fire in three places. I never saw, nor can well conceive, a more awful, yet magnificent spectacle. It was the beginning of the bombardment in forma. We saw and heard it going on until daylight, as we lay in our cots; and as the work of destruction proceeded, I cannot describe to you the appalling effect it had on me. Our cabin was illuminated with an intensely red glow, then suddenly wrapped in deep gloom, as the flames rose and fell, while the vessel quivered and every plank in her was shaken by the loud reverberation of the cannon. Alas! poor Danes! I could not but feel for them.

"Lord Cathcart told me the next morning that he had thrown two thousand shells into the town, besides the fire from our gun-boats and the famous catamaran rockets. And this sort of work was to begin again at night. . . .

"In the afternoon the firing began again with greater fury than ever, and for two or three hours there was a tremendous blaze. The wind was high; the flames spread rapidly, and towards night vividly illumined the horizon, so that at the distance of five miles from the city we could see each other on the quarterdeck as if it had been broad daylight, and into the city in the same manner; the intervening ships forming very picturesque objects.

". . . Ere I left, the fire had increased to a prodigious height, the principal church was in flames, looking like a pyramid of fire, and the last I saw and heard of the ill-fated city was the falling-in of the steeple with a tremendous crash, and the distant loud hurrahs it occasioned along our line.

"I own that my heart ached as I thought of the many scenes of horror that must inevitably take place in the midst of all this—and soon there would be but a heap of ruins instead of a city to take."

Few people were surprised when Denmark definitely allied herself to France and declared war against Great Britain, as did Russia, after some show of negotiations, in November. In the following spring war was declared upon Sweden by the Czar without any just cause. Finland was overrun by his troops, but the resistance of the brave inhabitants led to an Act of Guarantee whereby the Czar promised to uphold the old laws. Still eager to share in the dismemberment of the Turkish Empire, Alexander clung to the Danubian provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia which were to have been restored to the Sultan by the terms of the Treaty of Tilsit, and Napoleon, on his part, continued to keep Prussia full of French soldiers. Thus both parties were unfaithful to their most solemn promises, but this did not preclude a joint expedition to India to be undertaken by France, Russia, and Austria from being mooted.

Napoleon now took occasion to visit Italy, with the usual results. Etruria, whose king was a grandson of Charles IV. of Spain, became a department of France, the young monarch being promised a province in Portugal with the title of King of Northern Lusitania, and the Papal States were filled with French troops and shortly afterwards absorbed in the kingdom of Italy.