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The Napoleon Series > Government > Governments and Politics

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Great Britain: Orders in Council and Licenses. 1800-1810

By Tom Holmberg


The maritime war between Great Britain and France was a great opportunity for neutral trade.� Exports from the United States rose from $20 million in 1790 to 138.6 million by 1807. The outbreak of war in 1793 saw the British government gradually enforce increasingly rigorous policies towards neutral trade.� To counter British naval superiority, France had opened its colonial ports, which had been closed before the war, to neutral trade. Britain pledged to put an end to neutral trade.� The United States held that if a ship was neutral, the goods on board were also neutral�"free ships make free goods." Britain on the other hand followed its Rule of 1756, a policy the United States had accepted as part of Jay's Treaty of 1795, which held that neutrals could not in wartime engage in trade that had been prohibited during peacetime.

In 1783 the Earl of Sheffield wrote, in regards to opening the British colonies to free trade with the newly-liberated United States, "The Navigation act, the basis of our great power at sea, gave us the trade of the world: if we alter that act, by permitting any state to trade with our islands, or by suffering any state to bring into this country any produce but its own, we desert the Navigation act, and sacrifice the marine of England."� After the start of the war with France, the Order in Council of July 1783 reaffirmed Britain's commitment to the Navigation Act.

Restricting trade was a policy that Britain had long used to destroy an enemy's commerce. Once war was declared Britain again undertook a maritime war against French commerce. The British Order in Council of 8 June 1793 extended the definition of contraband goods to foodstuffs.� In November Britain issued an order to condemn any ship bearing provisions to a French colony in an attempt to starve the French colonies into submission or transporting French colonial goods.� Republicans in the United States were already pressing for retaliation against British policies.� An Order in Council of 6 November 1793 placed a virtual blockade on the French islands of the Caribbean.�

In April 1795 a secret Order in Council was issued, in which officers were told not to be "over nice or scrupulous respecting the nature of the papers of those ships" carrying grain supplies to France.� This was done mainly because the grain so seized could be used to relieve the acute shortage in the British Isles.� France declared in 1796 that it would respond in kind and treat neutral vessels in the same matter as the British.� In 1797 France declared that British goods and naval stores aboard neutral ships were liable to confiscation and the vessels could be condemned if not provided with a French-issued r�le d'�quipage. In Jan. 1798 the French government authorized the capture of any vessel with British goods on board and closed French ports to any ship that had touched at a British port.� In 1799 Britain declared the coat of Holland under blockade.

In 1800 Russia reestablished the League of Armed Neutrality (Sweden and Denmark had formed an armed neutrality pact in 1794) with Denmark, Sweden and Prussia to counter English interference in neutral shipping. Great Britain sent a fleet into the Baltic and destroyed the Danish fleet in 1801 at the Battle of Copenhagen. Tsar Paul was assassinated before a similar attack was carried out against the Russian fleet. Sweden and Denmark reluctantly joined in the agreement.

The renewal of the trade war after the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens put the whole of the carrying trade to Europe into the hands of neutrals.� Britain determined to end this trade with blockades and ever more rigorous Orders in Council. The Essex case of May 1805, overturning the previous Polly decision, cracked down on the practice of "broken" voyages, where goods from France or Spain would be shipped to neutral ports, off-loaded and inspected by customs, then reloaded and shipped to another port. Britain rule that these voyages were direct in intent, if not in fact.� The Essex case meant that colonial goods could enter the United States only for domestic consumption.

Orders in Council issued on 16 May 1806 (known as the "Fox Blockade") put the coast of Europe from the Elbe in Germany to Brest in France, a distance of almost eight hundred miles, in a state of blockade.� In response, Napoleon, in his Berlin Decree of 21 November 1806, declared the British Islands in "a state of blockade, forbade all correspondence or trade with England, defined all articles of English manufacture or produce as contraband, and the property of all British subjects as the lawful prize of war."� Britain retaliated with more stringent Orders in Council. The Order of 7 January prohibiting coastal trade with France and her allies. That of November banning neutrals from trading with ports from which British ships were prohibited, only by going through a British port, and paying duties and obtaining a license, could a neutral trade with an open European port.� Spencer Perceval explained that "The object of the Orders in Council was not to destroy the trade of the Continent, but to force the Continent to trade with us."�

Britain issued thousands of licenses to British and neutral merchants permitting trade with the Continent. In a single month of 1812 the British issued 722 licenses for American shipments of grain to Portugal and Spain, this trade continued even after the outbreak of war between the United States and Britain.� Every license was required to have an accompanying Order in Council, as the number of licenses multiplied a short notice was inserted in the register of the Privy Council in lieu of an Order.� When Commodore Stephen Decatur captured the American merchant-ship the Mandarin in October 1812, he found a package of licenses intended for American shipowners.

When an American ship, the Horizon, was stranded upon the French coast in November 1807, the French prize court, acting on the grounds that that cargo consisted of merchandise of British origin, seize the ship and its cargo. This decision became the "precedent for the speedy seizure and sequestration of a large amount of American property" by the French.� From 1803 to 1807 the British seized 528 American flag ships, while the French had seized 206 between 1803 and the end of 1806.� Maritime trade for neutrals was profitable but dangerous.

The United States responded to these restrictions on trade by passing the Embargo Act of December 1807, prohibiting U.S. ships from trading with Europe and banned the importation of manufactured goods from Britain.� The Embargo was repealed in March 1809 and replaced by a Non-Intercourse Act, opening trade with all but France, Britain and their colonies. "Our lot happens to have been cast in an age when two nations to whom circumstances have given a temporary superiority over others, the one by land, the other by sea," Thomas Jefferson commented, "...Degrading themselves thus from the character of lawful societies into lawless bands of robbers and pirates, they are abusing their brief ascendancy by desolating the world with blood and rapine. Against such a banditti, war had become less ruinous than peace, for then peace was a war on one side only."

See also "Documents upon the Continental System."� For additional information on Britain's other Acts and Orders in Council, see "Acts, Orders in Council, etc.." For a copy of the U.S. Embargo Act, see "The Embargo Act of 1807."


Placed on the Napoleon Series February 2003


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