The Continental System: An Economic Interpretation

Heckscher, Eli F.
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Harald Westergaard, ed. C. S. Fearenside, trans.
First Pub. Date
Oxford: Clarendon Press
Pub. Date



IT has already been intimated that, parallel with the commercial blockade, which came principally from the French side, there was taking place, mainly on the British side, a systematic persecution of trade with enemy countries, and that both of these lines of development came to be united in the Continental System. Seemingly and on paper these two lines of policy were not only separate, but also, in part, absolutely conflicting; this, in fact, has led many observers astray. But if we consider the policy of the maritime blockade with reference to its actual application, as opposed to its outward form, we find that its character, in spite of all inconsistencies and lack of precision, easily reveals as merely an outcome of the mercantilist commercial policy. In this way, consequently, the aim of the commercial war of a hundred years ago was altogether unlike that pursued in the recent World War. On this point, however, scarcely any of the usual accounts give us clear information. The majority of them take the policy of blockade as a more or less self-evident matter without inquiring into its aims. The only writer who, so far as I know, has embarked on a deeper analysis is the foremost naval historian of our time, the late Admiral Mahan of the United States Navy, who has undoubtedly cast much light on the history of the Continental System in his books, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire (1893), and Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812 (1905). In general, however, it may be said that Admiral Mahan is too much concerned with sea-power in itself to devote sufficient attention to its connexion with economic policy and economic activity, which after all have also a non-naval side.


In the external system of the maritime blockade the actual blocking of the enemy's ports and coasts unquestionably forms the central point. Characteristic of the system, however, was the practice adopted by Great Britain of establishing a so-called 'paper blockade', that is to say, of declaring in a state of blockade long stretches of coast which she could not or would not effectively blockade by means of sufficient naval forces, and on the strength of this declaration capturing neutral vessels bound for well-nigh any enemy port. This practice received its most extreme statement in an obiter dictum attributed to the British Admiralty Judge, Sir James Marriott, who in 1780, during the war with France and Spain, the European allies of the American colonies, declared that the ports of those countries were ipso facto blockaded by virtue of their geographic position.*15 It was perhaps chiefly to this central point in the naval policy of Great Britain that the neutrals demurred. The demand that the blockade should be effectual, that is to say, that it should apply only to places which were so well guarded that vessels could not reach them without imminent danger of capture, consequently played an important rôle among the five celebrated points enunciated in 1778 by the Danish statesman, A. P. Bernstorff, and used as the foundation of the unusually successful Swedo-Dano-Russian Armed Neutrality of 1780.



The blockade undoubtedly had its root in the idea of siege, as the Swedish international jurist, Dr. Nils Söderqvist, has pointed out; and like the siege, accordingly, it aimed in principle at a real cutting-off of the enemy's territory, especially as regards the exclusion of supplies. Here, therefore, the external contrast with the mercantilist commercial policy is very marked; for the latter, as we have seen, aimed to encourage the forcing of goods upon the enemy and would consequently have regarded a consistent application of the blockade principle as a direct advantage to the enemy country in so far as its supplies were crippled, and as an advantage to the home country only in so far as the blockade impeded the foreign sale of the enemy's own goods. This peculiar and important but usually overlooked inconsistency can be explained only by the fact that the practice of blockade arose in the pre-mercantilist period. But with the development and spread of mercantilist ideas the practice necessarily had to reshape itself; and this, in fact, was what actually happened.


The result was twofold. In the first place, blockade measures were employed to accomplish other purposes than those formally intended; and, in the second place, the regulations existing on paper were annulled, either by exceptions or by deliberate laxity in their enforcement, to such an extent as to create an order of things quite different from that which was officially prescribed.



First, then, we have to consider the employment of blockade measures for purposes other than those formerly intended. Here primary importance attaches to the fact that seizures or captures may be said to have been ends in themselves. To some extent this appears even in the relative importance of the paper blockade as compared with the effective blockade; for the former gave much greater chances of capture but, at the same time, was a far less safe means of preventing intercourse with the enemy. Moreover, two of the most important methods of blockade are largely explained when we come to consider the importance of captures—namely, the arbitrary extension of the idea of contraband and the persistent refusal of Great Britain to acknowledge the proposition that 'free ships make free goods' or that 'the flag covers the cargo', which implies that enemy goods are immune from capture on neutral vessels.


The object of this encouragement of captures for their own sake was scarcely in any notable number of cases what one would nowadays be most inclined to expect, that is, the procurement of goods for one's own use in this convenient manner. It is true that Pitt, according to a statement of the then Swedish envoy in London, Lars von Engeström—a statement, however, which is not confirmed by the brief parliamentary reports—referred in the House of Commons on November 3, 1795, to seizures of corn cargoes bound for French ports as a means of overcoming the exceptional shortage of foodstuffs in England;*16 and there is also a later utterance of Napoleon to the same effect.*17 But these cases would seem to be almost unique, as one might expect beforehand in view of the fact that the object of the seizures was not, as a rule, to acquire goods, but rather to dispose of them. An explanation must be found elsewhere, namely, in the fact that captures were a means of encouragement to the captors themselves; and to this point there was ascribed the greatest importance. To begin with, it applied to the great horde of privateers, who were regarded as forming a very important augmentation to the fighting forces of the country, but who manifestly could not embark on that career except with some prospect of profit. In a highly characteristic manner a well-known English international jurist, William Manning, towards the middle of the nineteenth century explained the benefit of these privateers on laissez-faire lines. 'They increase the naval force of a state,' he said, 'by causing vessels to be equipped from private cupidity, which a minister might not be able to obtain by general taxation without much difficulty'.*18



But this held good, not only of the privateering fleet, but also of the Royal Navy itself, in which captures formed a source of income to commanders and crew that was of the greatest importance in stimulating their willingness and zeal. How deeply rooted this opinion still was only a hundred years ago is best illustrated by a book of that time which perhaps, on the whole, gives a clearer notion of the pre-conditions of the policy of blockade than any other, namely, James Stephen's War in Disguise; or, the Frauds of the Neutral Flags, which was published the same day as the battle of Trafalgar (October 21, 1805) and within four months appeared in three British and two American editions.


The importance of this book—which, significantly enough, was republished during the recent World War as a contributory aid to the solution of its problems—will appear in several places later on, and a few words about its author, therefore, seem in order. James Stephen, father of Sir James Stephen (nicknamed 'Mr. Over-Secretary Stephen') and grandfather of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen and Sir Leslie Stephen, was a barrister practising in the Prize Appeal Court of the Privy Council, the highest prize court in England. Both in this capacity and earlier as a lawyer in the West Indies, he had acquired an intimate knowledge of the conditions of trade during the long naval war, as well as of the application of the principles of law to them. Thus not only was he thoroughly familiar with matters in this department, but he was also far from representing any extreme jingo view. This is perhaps best shown by the fact that, like his brother-in-law, William Wilberforce, the great emancipator of the slaves, he was a decidedly religious person, belonging to the Clapham Sect, and devoted a large part of his life to the struggle for the abolition of negro slavery. This fact gives his utterances on captures their proper background. He dwells long on the injustice which would be inflicted on 'our gallant and meritorious fellow subjects, the naval captors,' when they were compelled to see valuable cargoes, 'their lawful game,' passing continually under their sterns. 'It is painful to reflect,' he says, 'that these brave men lose the ancient fruits of distant service, while enduring more than its ordinary hardships.' His account of the importance of capture as an inducement for seamen may be quoted in extenso:

Let us give full credit to our gallant officers, for that disinterested patriotism, and that love of glory, which ought to be the main springs of military character, and which they certainly possess in a most eminent degree. But it would be romantic and absurd, to suppose that they do not feel the value of that additional encouragement, which his Majesty and the legislature hold out to them, in giving them the benefit of the captures they make. What else is to enable the veteran naval officer, to enjoy in the evening of his life, the comforts of an easy income; the father to provide for his children; or the husband for an affectionate wife, who, from the risques he runs in the service of his country, is peculiarly likely to survive him? By what other means, can a victorious admiral, when raised, as a reward of his illustrious actions, to civil and hereditary honours, hope to support his well-earned rank, and provide for an ennobled posterity?... It is from the enemies of his country, therefore, that he hopes to wrest the means of comfortably sustaining those honours, which he has gained at their expence.

As to the common seamen and mariners, the natural motives of dislike to the naval service, are in their breasts far more effectually combated by the hope of prize money, than by all the other inducements that are or can be proposed to them. The nautical character is peculiarly of a kind to be influenced by such dazzling, but precarious prospects.*19



With this encouragement of captures for their own sake, however, there was undoubtedly coupled a desire to cut down the enemy's trade. But this desire, too, has to be conceived in a strictly mercantilist spirit. To inflict military injury on the enemy, either directly or indirectly, was not—at least not to any notable extent—the object of the interference with his trade. On the contrary, the primary object was that of waging commercial war against him, i.e., of depriving him of a source of gain, or, in other words, beating him off the field; and, parallel with this, it was aimed to extend a country's own trade—which could be done, and was constantly attempted, at the expense, not only of the enemy country, but also of neutral countries. This brought it about that the establishment of a blockade dealt the latter a much harder blow than is the case at the present time. The intention was to prevent them from receiving any profit either from the enemy country or from other countries, and so far as possible to expel them, as well as the enemy, from sources of gain which had previously been open to them. It is perhaps not altogether clear whether considerations of this nature influenced some of the measures of the recent blockade. But however that may be, it is true that such a policy has no connexion whatsoever with the blockade of the enemy as such, but may be pursued, as actually happened a hundred years ago, purely as an end in itself. The objection to the proposition that 'free ships make free goods' was rooted in this object much more than in the inclination to encourage captures for their own sake; for as goods belonging to subjects of enemy countries were liable to seizure on neutral vessels, the neutrals were prevented from taking over the traffic which the enemy himself had been able to carry on before he was driven from the sea, as the British historian Lecky has well observed.*20 And this was still more the case with the fourth of the great disputed questions concerning the law of war at sea, namely, that of commerce nouveau, or, in British terminology, the rule of 1756, the wording of which, as elaborated by British jurists, was that 'a neutral has no right to deliver a belligerent from the pressure of his enemy's hostilities, by trading with his colonies in time of war in a way that was prohibited in time of peace.' This principle prevented the neutrals from pushing their way either into the enemy's coasting trade or—and this was more important—into what might be regarded as a special form of coasting trade, namely, trade with the enemy's colonies. In time of peace both of these were jealously guarded preserves of the trade and navigation of the home country; but in time of war the belligerent power that was debarred from the sea willingly turned them over to neutrals with the double object of maintaining the traffic and of preventing it from falling into the hands of the enemy.


The characteristic difference between the policy of that time and the policy of to-day is that, when the masters of the sea a century ago tried to prevent neutrals from carrying on a certain kind of trade, their object was not to kill that trade altogether, as is the case nowadays, but to seize it for themselves. It is therefore indisputable, as the neutrals complained and as Stephen himself admits, that British vessels were allowed to trade with France, while neutral vessels were overhauled and seized.*21 In full accord with this and with mercantilist trade policy, it was sought first and foremost to cut off all kinds of exports from the enemy to the neutrals, especially if they competed with those of the home country. In complete contrast with the efforts of the recent war, the endeavours of that time were aimed, on the one side, at getting rid of the excess of export goods in the home country and, on the other side, at preventing the enemy from selling his products. This was in part due to the fact that apprehensions were always felt of low prices on these goods in the home country and also of high prices in the enemy country. On the one side, therefore, the whole of Stephen's account is permeated by anxiety lest the price of British colonial goods should decline as a result of their being kept out of the continental markets by French and Spanish colonial goods. In previous wars, according to his view, the British home market, 'relieved by a copious exportation from temporary repletions,' gave them (the colonies), 'in its large and ever-advancing prices, some indemnity for the evils of the war,' while at that time, according to his statements, the prices were sinking on the Continent in consequence of the importation of goods from the enemy's colonies. On the other hand, he is dominated by dislike of the idea that the same neutral trade should provide access to America of the textile and iron goods of the Continent in competition with those of Great Britain herself. What troubled him, therefore, was not that the Continent should get colonial goods, but that it should get them from the enemy colonies, which, like the mother country itself, should be cut off from exports, he thought, but not from imports.


Finally, therefore, all this implies that no cutting-off of imports to the enemy could come into the line of the policy pursued. It denotes merely an effort to place those imports under the control of the naval power itself, so that the country might thereby give preference, so far as possible, to its own products and those of its colonies, and also so that it might take over trade and navigation with the enemy mainland. The latter consideration, however, took a secondary place, as Great Britain often had need of neutral shipping to supplement her own overworked mercantile marine; and it is especially noteworthy that the neutrals' supply of the enemy's (e.g., the French) market with the belligerent's (e.g., Britain's) own products was an all but self-evident matter, against which there was really no objection to raise from a British point of view. Manifestly, such a blockade policy diverged fundamentally from that of the recent World War.


The only substantial exception to this general tendency—and even that a very partial one—concerned import goods of purely military importance, that is too say, military supplies, naval stores, and sometimes, at least in principle, foodstuffs for the enemy's fighting forces on land and sea. These items were emphasized by Pitt, for instance, in the great speech which he delivered before the House of Commons on February 2, 1801, immediately before his retirement, in defence of the policy of maritime blockade that he had introduced. In the actual execution of the policy, however, it is difficult to find any marked traces of this; and, significantly enough, it was coolly stated in Parliament, in 1812, that the clothing of the French army came from Yorkshire, and that 'not only the accoutrements, but the ornaments of Marshal Soult and his army' came from Birmingham. The reservation was made, however, that they had not been ordered directly by the French government!*22


It may be remarked in passing that Edward III, four and a half centuries earlier, had already given licences for the exportation of corn to the enemy, though the ruling thought at that time was that of procuring revenue for the Crown.*23



The colonial trade, which at that time was conducted in all countries on the lines of the Old Colonial System, deserves special attention in this connexion. The fundamental idea of that system was that the mother country and the colonies should constitute an economic whole, with a strict division of labour between them, so that the mother country alone supplied the colonies with the industrial products and other things they needed, and in exchange received alone, or practically alone, the raw materials, precious metals, foodstuffs, and stimulants that the colonies produced, all with national vessels and through national merchants. In this case, therefore, not only were exports to the colonies regarded as economically profitable to the mother country, but the same also held good of imports from the colonies. Accordingly, it was considered a great triumph if a country succeeded, by means of the maritime blockade, in conveying the products of enemy colonies also to its own shores, and at the same time in preventing those products from competing with the products of their own colonies on the mainland of Europe. A great many, not to say the majority, of the controversies that arose in those days regarding the matter of the commercial blockade, especially in Great Britain and America, turned precisely on the question of colonial trade, which also quantitatively played a surprisingly great part in the total commercial intercourse of the sea-trading countries, especially through the re-exportation of colonial goods that arose out of it. Thus, according to the so-called 'official values' in the statistics of trade, the British exports of foreign goods (which means substantially colonial goods) rose uninterruptedly in the course of the revolutionary wars from 21 per cent. of the total in 1792 to 36¼ per cent. in 1800. Likewise, the French re-exportation to Europe of goods from the West Indies immediately before the Revolution was greater than the whole of French exportation of domestic staple products of the textile and liquor industries. On the other hand, the transit trade of the United States in French, Spanish, and British West Indian products increased prodigiously during the same period, representing in 1806 a value of no less than $60,000,000, or one and a half times the value of the exports of the domestic goods of the United States.*24



Such, then, were the purposes that the policy of blockade was intended to serve. But as has already been mentioned, the curious thing about its practical application did not lie exclusively in this alteration of its objects, but also in the fact that the policy actually pursued was in reality quite different from that which held good on paper. To some extent this was true of the measures that pertained strictly to the law of war at sea, especially to blockades; but to a still greater extent it was true of trading with the enemy. The prohibition of this was regarded, especially in Great Britain, as an indispensable principle of international law and was therefore rigorously maintained on paper; and this notion was also strengthened by the desire of every country to mark the moral gulf that should separate its own subjects from the enemy, or, as the phrase ran, 'to prevent treasonable and improper intercourse'.*25 But there was not the slightest idea of carrying out this fundamental principle in practice. With almost grotesque force the contrast between theory and practice is brought out in one passage in Stephen's book in which he discusses the objection that might be raised against his pleadings in favour of measures against neutral trade, namely, that they would plunge Great Britain into war with the then neutrals and thereby impede her exports. He goes on to say:

Is it asked, 'Who would afterwards carry our manufactures to market?' I answer, 'Our allies, our fellow subjects, our old and new enemies themselves.' In the last war (1778-1783—when Spain and Great Britain were enemies) nothing prevented the supplying of Spanish America with British manufactures, in British bottoms, even when they were liable to confiscation by both the belligerent parties for the act, but that the field of commerce was preoccupied, and the markets glutted by the importations under neutral flags.

But would I advise a toleration of these new 'modes of relieving the hostile colonies'? Its toleration would not be necessary. Even your own hostilities would not be able to overcome the expansive force of your own commerce, when delivered from the unnatural and ruinous competition, of its present privileged enemies. You might often capture the carriers of it and condemn their cargoes; but the effect would chiefly be to raise the price upon the enemy, and the difference would go into the purses of your [prize-taking] seamen. The prize goods themselves, would find their way from your colonies into the hostile territories.*26


It would be difficult to find a more typical example of the capacity to 'make the best of both worlds'. The legal principle of prohibiting trade with the enemy was constantly maintained, while at the same time full provision was made for exports above all to the enemy, which according to the deeply rooted ideas of the time was of vital interest to the country. The same combination of incompatible views is revealed in almost every utterance that has come down from that time; and when the will existed, it was not difficult to find means for its realization. One of these means was the system of licences, of which Stephen says that 'papal dispensations were not more easily obtained in the days of Luther'. Another means was the system called 'neutralization,' whereby vessels and cargoes that in reality belonged to one or another of the belligerents were declared on sworn—that is to say, perjured—evidence, to belong to neutrals. These tactics—which, however, were sometimes turned against the belligerents themselves, and in such cases were combated both by the law courts and by the supporters of the official policy—were employed on a strictly business basis, commonly with a commission of 1-2 per cent. for the firm that handled the transaction. Especially Emden, in East Friesland, which belonged to Prussia and was consequently neutral, was a centre for transactions of this nature, and there were loud complaints against British marine insurance firms which bound themselves, against a special premium of 1 per cent., not to urge the legally valid plea against the enemy origin of the cargoes, which by law always involved the invalidity of the insurance. Besides this, moreover, there always remained the possibility of winking at an illegal practice which there was no intention of preventing; and it is characteristic of the situation that in the year 1794 Swedish captains openly declared to the British customs officers that their vessels were bound for a French port.


Trading with the enemy also appears as a fairly self-evident practice in nearly all accounts of the commercial conditions then prevailing. This is revealed, for instance, by the British trade statistics themselves, which show that the share of the enemy countries, France and the Netherlands (northern and southern), in the total exports of Great Britain declined only from 15 to 12 per cent. in the years 1792-1800. This, too, is conclusive evidence in support of Stephen's proposition as to the impossibility of war measures adopted by Great Britain to the end of overcoming the expansive force of her own trade.*27


Following this hasty sketch of the general character of the maritime blockade policy of that time, it seems expedient to show in a more concrete form the development of those measures during the years from the intervention of Great Britain in the revolutionary wars in 1793 down to the Peace of Amiens in 1802. It contains, indeed, a good deal which may be of value, not only in throwing light on the general situation at that time, but also in furnishing a background for what was to come later.



The measures adopted at the beginning of the maritime blockade in 1793 exhibit marked resemblances to the corresponding measures adopted during the recent World War, and are therefore of especial interest and importance. As early as February 14, that is to say, a fortnight after the outbreak of the war, Great Britain authorized the capture of all vessels and goods belonging to France; and in the following month she proceeded to work. On April 4 she proclaimed all her most advanced principles concerning the law of war at sea, and on June 8 she introduced the most famous of her measures, namely, the instructions of 1793, whereby fleet commanders and privateers were authorized 'to stop and detain all vessels loaded wholly or in part with corn, flour, or meal, bound to any port in France or any port occupied by the armies of France', with the understanding that the British government would purchase the cargo with the proper allowances for freight, called 'pre-emption'. This measure took the form of a plan to starve out France. Count Axel von Fersen, the chivalrous young Swedish nobleman who, as is well known, was one of the most active allies of the French émigrés, had emphasized this, as early as April 29, in a letter addressed to the Regent of Sweden, Charles Duke of Södermanland; and in a notification of the measure addressed to the Baltic powers, especially one to Denmark in July, Great Britain justified her June instructions in a manner very similar to that in which the policy of starving out Germany was justified during the recent war. The notification declared that the war was being conducted in a manner contrary to the principles of international law, that France had no recognized government, and that the corn trade had been taken over by the French authorities themselves, that is to say, had become an act of the enemy's own government; and, finally, the blockade against imports was represented purely as an important means of forcing the enemy to make peace. Lars von Engeström hit the mark in describing the tendencies of that time—as also those of the World War—when he wrote that the struggle 'had passed into a kind of political war of religion'.


A genuine blockade of the importation of foodstuffs into France might therefore have been expected, that is, a 'starving-out scheme' similar to that of the World War. In a way such a plan might even have been made to harmonize fairly well with the continental economic policy of that time, at least until the French Revolution; for as a matter of fact, the prevailing note on the subject of foodstuffs continued to be the pre-mercantilist tendency to prevent exports, rather than the mercantilist one to encourage domestic production by hampering imports and facilitating exports. As has been already mentioned, however, Pitt's justification for the seizures was not based on this notion, but on Britain's own quite temporary need of foodstuffs—according to Lars von Engeström's statement;*28 and evidence of how deeply rooted the notion of the inexpediency of preventing imports to the enemy was is furnished by the fact that the ensuing developments did not at all follow along the lines which were indicated in the first measures. Only fourteen months afterwards, on August 18, 1794, the previously cited article in the June instructions of 1793 was repealed, and this meant that the importation of corn into France was again permitted. It is true that in the following April a new attempt was made to put the instructions of 1793 into force, but this was done chiefly with the object of forcing the United States into a ratification of the celebrated Jay Treaty of 1794. That, however, wound up the whole of this episode, so that throughout the entire period of the twenty years that still remained before Europe obtained a lasting peace, not a single attempt at starving out France was made, so far as we know, nor were there any further efforts to stop her imports on the part of the power that had the command of the sea. Against only one small country, Norway, did Great Britain occasionally make use of her ability to prevent the introduction of supplies, for reasons which will be discussed in due time.


In contrast with these sporadic attempts to prevent importation into France, the regulation of the trade with the French and Spanish colonies continued throughout the war, that is, until the Peace of Amiens in 1802; and this became the starting-point of the events that were to take place during the period of the Continental System proper. Here, too, there was a certain amount of wavering on the part of Great Britain, but the general principles were maintained with a consistency wholly different from that shown in the other case. A beginning was made with the celebrated instructions of November 6, 1793, which aroused the particular animosity of the neutrals, especially the United States, for the reason that they prescribed the capture of all vessels carrying the products of the French colonies or conveying supplies to them. Shortly afterwards, however, these draconic orders were revoked as a concession to the United States, and their place was taken by the new instructions of January 8, 1794. These restricted the order concerning capture to vessels proceeding directly from the West Indian colonies of the enemy to a European port; and this, in turn, opened up the possibility of a so-called 'circuitous voyage' via some neutral extra-European port, that is to say, primarily an American port, but also possibly a Danish or Swedish colonial port. Nevertheless, it was provided that the products of enemy colonies should have become neutral property in order to be loaded, and that blockade-running vessels, as well as vessels conveying naval stores or munitions of war to the enemy colonies, would be liable to capture. These regulations were further modified by the new instructions of January, 1798, which both abolished the requirement that the colonial goods should have become neutral property and also, and above all, permitted direct traffic to a European port, that is, a port belonging to the British Empire or to the home land of the neutral vessel. This stipulation in favour of a British port is of especial interest in that it furnishes evidence of the British design to attract to Great Britain the trade even in the products of enemy colonies. As Admiral Mahan has rightly remarked, it was an outcome of the effort characteristic of the old colonial system to create in the home country a staple or entrepôt for colonial goods. In point of fact, the instructions of 1798 remained in force until the termination of the revolutionary wars in 1802.*29


In comparison with the treatment of neutral shipping in the recent war, these orders do not present a very strict appearance; for at the present time the belligerent that is dominant on the seas tries to cut off practically every sort of neutral intercourse with the enemy over such waters as it commands and even, to some extent, over other waters. But one must not overlook the fact that privateering, which it was in many ways almost impossible to distinguish from piracy pure and simple, and even the private interests of the crews of war-ships in effecting captures, brought about an arbitrariness and a brutality in the treatment of maritime commerce which is unknown to-day. This has been copiously illustrated by the recently deceased Danish historian, Professor Edvard Holm, whose account undeniably gives one the impression that the trials and troubles of neutral trade, even during the first years of the revolutionary wars, in practice exceeded even those of the present time, even though its chances of profit, as far as we can judge, were greater. Nevertheless, the acts of the belligerents during those first years were almost deeds of mercy in comparison with what was to come; and the new departure was the work of the new French policy. Like most of the measures of the French revolutionary governments, the measures against maritime trade were marked by a combination of violence and impotence; but they were so far explicable because the British application of the laws of war at sea rendered French navigation all but impossible. As usual, the principal sufferers in the end were the neutrals, and this time the measures of violence against them were carried to the most extreme limit that had yet been reached.



At first the measures of France had been considerably milder than those of Great Britain; and this was natural enough in view of the fact that France stood in great need of the help of neutrals. By a law passed on May 9, 1793—that is to say, before the British instructions of June 8, but after the declaration of April 4—the Convention ordered that all neutral vessels conveying foodstuffs to an enemy port or carrying goods belonging to the enemy should be captured and conducted into a French port. Such vessels were to be fair prizes, and their cargoes were to be purchased on behalf of France. But the French purchase regulations themselves were more favourable to the neutrals than the corresponding British ones; and at the same time it was declared, in the same way as afterwards under Napoleon, that the orders would be abolished as soon as the enemy on his part granted the unrestricted importation of foodstuffs into France.


At first the practice, too, was milder on the French side. Gradually, however, French policy turned completely around; and it was not long before the new tendency acquired official form. On July 2, 1796 (Messidor 14, year IV), the Directory categorically declared in an ordinance of only a few lines that British methods were to be applied against the neutrals in every respect. The culmination, however, was reached in the notorious law of January 18, 1798 (Nivôse 29, year VI), which laid down that the nationality of a vessel should be determined by its cargo, so that if any vessel was carrying goods of any kind coming from England or its possessions, no matter who was the owner, this fact alone should justify the confiscation, not only of these goods, but also of the vessel itself and its entire cargo. Moreover, any vessel that had touched at a British port was forbidden to put in at any French port; and earlier it had already been made a practice to seize vessels bound for a British port.


It would have been difficult to go farther; and this time actions were not milder, but still more violent, than words. From the two years or so during which the law of Nivôse was in force come all the wildest examples of high-handed procedure on the part of belligerents on the seas. It was especially Scandinavian vessels that were exposed to this reign of terror, while the only important neutral power besides Sweden and Denmark and Norway, namely, the United States, began what was practically a privateering war against France without any formal declaration of war. The French law came into force without any preliminary warning, so that vessels which had sailed without knowledge of its provisions fell helplessly into the hands of captors; and once seized, their chances of escape were very small indeed. With the importance that British industry had now acquired, in fact, it was almost impossible for a vessel to sail without having on board some article of British origin; and it was not at all necessary that these articles should constitute its cargo, in the strict sense of the term, to seal its fate. A woollen blanket on the skipper's berth, a few sacks of British coal for the ship's stove, British earthenware used by the crew, the British metal buttons of the skipper's coat, etc., were sufficient to lead to confiscation. Indeed, the old Hamburg economist Büsch gives us in one of his last works, that bearing the exquisite title of Ueber das Bestreben der Völker neuerer Zeit, einander in ihrem Seehandel recht wehe zu thun (1800), such an example as this: Once when a French captor, quite exceptionally, did not succeed in finding anything British on board a captured vessel, two of the sailors were bribed to disclose the alleged fact that the skipper had had a pair of English boots which he had thrown overboard on the approach, of the captor; and that, says Büsch, was enough to bring about the confiscation of the cargo.*30 In a suit against five Danish East Indian vessels bearing rich products obviously of Danish origin, the captors succeeded in having the cargoes condemned on the ground that Lascars included in the crews were British subjects; and in other cases vessels and cargoes were condemned on the ground that the former had been built in a British shipyard and had been bought after the outbreak of the war—in spite of the fact that the vessel was a French prize and had been sold to its then Danish owner by the French captor.


Justice was indeed a parody. Those who acted as judges were ordinarily the consuls in the most important haunts of the privateers, with whom they often acted in collusion; nay, some of them were themselves ex-privateers or even still commercially interested in the captures—an example which one of Napoleon's governors was destined to follow in the fullness of time.*31 The abuses increased to such an extent that they completely outgrew the control of the weak government of the Directory. On one occasion, for example, Reubell, one of the members of the Directory, informed the Danish minister in Paris that a French prize court had condemned and caused to be sold for the benefit of the captor, a Swedish vessel with a cargo destined for the French government itself. Moreover, the privateers worked into each other's hands in various ways. Thus one of them might rob a neutral vessel of its ship's papers in order that another might seize it with impunity; for without papers its condemnation was certain.


What is peculiar in the policy of the Directory, and at the same time significant for the ensuing developments, is the fact that it had the effect of a French self-blockade. It is indeed manifest, as Admiral Mahan points out, that the power which was excluded from the sea was the one which really had need of the neutrals for the procurement of its supplies, and which, therefore, from a purely material point of view at least, had the most to lose by a course of violent action against them. 'Every blow against a neutral,' he says, 'was really, even though not seemingly, a blow for Great Britain.' During the period of scarcely two years in which the law of Nivôse was in force, it practically did away with that neutral trade and navigation with France which was to some extent independent of Great Britain. Neutral vessels, in fact, did not venture there, so that even during the year 1798 their coasting trade in France declined by two-thirds and their foreign trade with the same country by one-fourth. Moreover, the obstacles that French captures placed in the way of free navigation brought it about that neutrals in general were pushed back; and this, of course, was an advantage to Great Britain, which was enabled by her command of the sea to protect her trading vessels by means of convoys. The latter obstacle in the way of neutral shipping was of less importance than the former, however, because the two neutral Scandinavian states also fitted out convoys in common on the basis of the League of Armed Neutrality of 1794. This had excellent commercial results, at least for Denmark, but the French policy caused it to be of very little benefit to France. Nor did the latter country receive any compensations whatever for its own shipping, for according to the Directory's own declaration, in 1799, the British blockade had been maintained so strictly that not a single vessel was sailing the seas under a French flag.


It was therefore quite natural that Napoleon, as early as December, 1799, that is, shortly after his accession to power, should repeal, or cause to be repealed, the law of Nivôse and revive the more moderate regulations of 1778 (law of Frimaire 23 and ordinance of Frimaire 29, year VIII); and at the beginning of the following year he did away with some of the worst abuses in the administration of prize-court justice by instituting a Supreme Prize Court in Paris. In principle, however, his later policy was to be a faithful reflection of that of the Directory, as will be shown in due course.*32

Notes for this chapter

Söderqvist, Le blocus maritime (Stockholm, 1908), pp. 44-5.
Lydia Wahlström, Sverige och England under revolutionskrigens börjar (Stockholm, 1917), pp. 192-3; Parliamentary History, vol. XXXII, pp. 235-6.
See p. 94.
Manning, Commentaries on the Law of Nations (London, 1839), p. 117.
Stephen, War in Disguise: or, the Frauds of the Neutral Flags (Piggott ed., London, 1917), pp. 106-7.
Lecky, History of England in the Eighteenth Century (original library edition, London, 1882), vol. IV, p. 157.
Holm, Danmark-Norges udenrigske Historie fra 1791 til 1807 (Copenhagen, 1875), vol. I, p. 231; Stephen, op. cit., p. 170.
Stephen, op. cit., pp. 60 et seq., 90, 195, et al.; Emory Johnson and others, History of the Domestic and Foreign Commerce of the United States (Washington, 1915), vol. II, p. 23; Parliamentary History, vol. XXXV, p. 916; Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, vol. XXIII, pp. 8, 42-3.
Brodnitz, Englische Wirtschaftsgeschichte (Jena, 1918), vol. I, p. 140.
Hansard, vol. IX, app., col. XV; Levasseur, Histoire des classes ouvrières, &c., avant 1789, vol. II, p. 554 note; Johnson and others, op. cit., vol. II, p. 20.
Stephen in the House of Commons, Mar. 3, 1812, Hansard, vol. XXI, p. 1136.
Stephen, War in Disguise, p. 168.
Stephen, War in Disguise, pp. 39, 70 et seq., 169, et al.; Rose, vice president of the Board of Trade in the House of Commons, March 3, 1812, Hansard, vol. XXI, p. 1122; Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (London, 1893), vol. II, pp. 252 note, 309; The Laws of England (Halsbury ed., London, 1907), s.v. Aliens, vol. I, pp. 311-12; Wahlström, op. cit., pp. 62-3. In this connexion it may not be irrelevant to refer as a parallel to a well-known passage in the Pickwick Papers (ch. 40): 'What, am I to understand that these men earn a livelihood by waiting about here to perjure themselves before the judges of the land, at the rate of half a crown a crime!' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, quite aghast at the disclosure. 'Why, I don't know exactly about perjury, my dear sir,' replied the little gentleman. 'Harsh word, my dear sir, very harsh word indeed! It's a legal fiction, my dear sir, nothing more.'
See p. 33.
Martens, Recueil des principaux traités (2d ed., Göttingen, 1826), vol. v, pp. 596-604; Annual Register, 1793, State Papers, pp. 176 et seq.; Stephen, op. cit., p. 175 note, 18 et seq., 33; Holm, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 106-15, 171 et seq.; Mahan, op. cit., vol. II. pp. 233 et seq.; also, Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812 (London, 1905), vol. I, pp. 27, 89-90, 93; Wahlström, op. cit., pp. 10 et seq., 62-3, 99, 126; Bassett, The Federalist System, 1789-1801, in The American Nation: A History (New York and London, 1906), vol. II, pp. 122-3, 129; Klinckowström, Le Comte de Fersen et la cour de France (Stockholm, 1878), vol. II, p. 419; Lars von Engeström, Minnen och anteckningar (Stockholm, 1876), vol. I, pp. 235 et seq.
Büsch, Sämmtliche Schriften über die Handlung (Hamburg, 1825), vol. v, pp. 278-9.
Correspondance de Napoléon Ier (Paris, 1858-1869), no. 18,491 (Feb. 8, 1812).
Lois et actes, &c., vol. VII, pp. 52-3; Bulletin des lois, &c., 2d ser., bull. 178, no. 1,678; bull. 235, no. 2,118; Martens, op. cit., 2d ed., vol. v, pp. 388-9, 398-9; vol. VI, pp. 743-4; Büsch, op. cit., chs. VIII-IX; Holm, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 69, 175-6, 195, 222 et seq., 232-50, 258, 266-7, 307, 313; Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, &c., vol. II, pp. 219-20, 243 et seq., 255 et seq.; Bassett, op. cit., pp. 220-21. For the whole of this part of the subject, cf. also Söderqvist, op. cit., pp. 18-49; Report of the Fourth Special Committee of the Swedish Second Chamber for 1902, no. 8, pp. 54-61; The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800, edited by James Brown Scott (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law. New York, 1918); Hugo Larsson, Sveriges deltagande i den väpnade neutraliteten, 1800-1801 (Lund, 1888); Clason, Gustaf IV Adolf och den europeiska krisen under Napoleon (Stockholm, 1913).

Part I, Chapter III

End of Notes

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