SOME would be familiar with the infamous embargo that the United States imposed on Cuba in the second half of the 20th century.
The embargo was enforced in March 1958 during the rule of Fulgencio Batista and continued when Fidel Castro became the leader of Cuba. Not surprisingly, Castro blamed the embargo, and not Communism, for his country’s economic problems. The use of an embargo as a form of punishment is neither new nor restricted to the Caribbean.
Armand Lefebvre contended that for Napoleon Bonaparte, the ruler of France, everything was dominated by the struggle against England. This was particularly accurate when the creation of the Continental System is considered. Pieter Geyl in Napoleon: For and Against argued that the French policy was ‘an exaggerated’ and ‘untenable one’. Geyl is partly accurate because the Continental System had far-reaching goals.
Napoleon had created a ‘prison’ in which he sought to block European nations from trading with Britain. He wanted to destroy the British economy and this was done by ensuring British goods were to be restricted from entering Europe. Napoleon’s efforts initially seemed successful. He was able to convince nations as Russia, Austria, and Prussia to cooperate and close their ports to British goods. However, curtailing part of the European trade did not cripple the British economy.
The major reason for the failure of the Continental System was due to the fact that Britain had overseas colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. Britain was not solely dependent on European trade. The closure of markets to Britain meant that this European nation would inevitably increase trade with its overseas territories. Furthermore, Britain became more appreciative of the value of her colonies in strengthening her economy during times of crisis.
Secondly, Napoleon had also failed to implement an alternative plan when Britain began contracting out its shipments to neutral vessels. Napoleon and his other European nations did not expect Britain to retaliate by creating a blockade of all European ships. It was inevitable that Britain decided not to allow European ships to sail on what was then Britain’s ocean as a reaction to Europe not allowing British ships to dock at European ports.
The attempt by Napoleon to dictate the trading partners of European nations could not be sustained because in the 19th century, Europe was part of a global interconnected trading network. Indeed, the British blockade severely handicapped internal European trading, which needed sea-shipping to operate at full capacity. Thus, any long-term boycott of trade with Britain would have hurt the European countries that were in Napoleon’s ‘prison’.
Most historians have overlooked the link between the failure of the Continental System and the rise of the nation state. The desire of European countries to seek autonomy and be in control of their economies was a major reason for the collapse of the carefully monitored Continental System. These nations were not prepared to take orders from a rapidly expanding France with Napoleon at the helm. This flaw in foreign policy badly damaged Napoleon’s leadership ability and his reputation of invincibility. European nations soon realized that France and not Britain was the greater threat to Europe. Thus in 1813, Napoleon, the ‘prison officer’, would become the prisoner as Europe was now united against Napoleon.
Dr Jerome Teelucksingh is an activist. He initiated the inaugural observances of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Men and Boys (January 31) and World Day of the Boy Child (May 16). He has made academic presentations at tertiary institutions including Harvard University and Oxford University.
See other articles by Dr Jerome Teelucksingh on AZP News: