SOAS Research Online

A Free Database of the Latest Research by SOAS Academics and PhD Students

[skip to content]

Ince, Onur Ulas (2018) 'Between Commerce and Empire: David Hume, Colonial Slavery, and Commercial Incivility.' History of Political Thought, 39 (1). pp. 107-137.

Text - Accepted Version
Download (410kB) | Preview


Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought has recently been reclaimed as a robust, albeit short-lived, cosmopolitan critique of European imperialism. This essay complicates this interpretation through a study of David Hume’s reflections on commerce, empire and slavery. I argue that while Hume condemned the colonial system of monopoly, war and conquest, his strictures against empire did not extend to colonial slavery in the Atlantic. This was because colonial slavery represented a manifestly uncivil institution when judged by enlightened metropolitan sensibilities, yet also a decisively commercial institution pivotal to the eighteenth-century global economy. Confronted by the paradoxical ‘commercial incivility’ of modern slavery, Hume opted for disavowing the link between slavery and commerce, and confined his criticism of slavery to its ancient, feudal and Asiatic incarnations. I contend that Hume’s disavowal of the commercial barbarism of the Atlantic economy is part of a broader ideological effort to separate the idea of commerce from its imperial origins and posit it as the liberal antithesis of empire. The implications of analysis, I conclude, go beyond the eighteenth-century debates over commerce and empire, and more generally pertain to the contradictory entwinement of liberalism and capitalism.

Item Type: Journal Article
Keywords: Adam Smith; David Hume; Enlightenment; capitalism; colonialism; commerce; empire; liberalism; slavery
SOAS Departments & Centres: Departments and Subunits > Department of Politics & International Studies
ISSN: 0143781X
Copyright Statement: This is the version of the article accepted for publication in History of Political Thought, 39 (1). pp. 107-137 published by Imprint Academic Re-use is subject to the publisher’s terms and conditions
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 10 Jan 2022 17:41

Altmetric Data


Download activity - last 12 monthsShow export options
Downloads since deposit
6 month trend
6 month trend
Accesses by country - last 12 monthsShow export options
Accesses by referrer - last 12 monthsShow export options

Repository staff only

Edit Item Edit Item