THANKS to an enlightened editorial policy, The National devotes more space and effort to informing its readers about the history of their country than any other newspaper.

In those foreign countries lucky enough to be able to balance the needs of the present with demands of their past there is usually less need for journalists to intervene in historical disputes. Most educated adults have acquired during their normal public schooling enough knowledge to take an interest in such controversies as they crop up from time to time.

Slavery is a good example. It has figured in human societies since ancient times. The oldest polities organised on any scale, such as those in the Middle East, left laws that regulated the lives of slaves. These lives were not notably more miserable than those in the despotisms still occupying that quarter of the globe in the 21st century.

For myself, I do not see why the Cicero who owned slaves in Rome was any more shameful than, say, the Adam Smith who wrote against slavery from Edinburgh on the grounds it was not profitable enough for a modern economy. Human beings are inconsistent in their moral judgments and always will be. They are hypocrites. They contradict themselves and each other the whole time.

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It is interesting that in Scotland we have not yet managed to have a full-scale war of words about Robert Burns. Burns is a poet we all love because he is impossible to hate. The highest intellectual will still love him for his sense of humour and his earthy realism, which rises to the status of a language of its own and teaches us to look for ways to love even those we do not in real life esteem. He re-invented the language spoken in Scotland and taught Scots ways to respect each other. Everybody learns to love Burns because we come across him all the time.

Yet this national hero – he is nothing less – had an attitude to slavery that would surely be unacceptable if he were to appear in the 21st century and expound it to us. I will not say Burns was a supporter of slavery, because I don’t think he ever had experience of it enough to come to a well-informed view. I think Adam Smith did have such a view and would urge anybody who disagrees to return to the study of it. But I think Burns was just plain ignorant of slavery.

That is still no excuse. The low point in Burns’s often stressful life came in 1786 when he and his brother Gilbert were forced to conclude they were never likely to prosper from running their farm at Mossgiel.

The poet made a dramatic decision to get out of Scotland altogether and go to Jamaica. He had been offered a job as bookkeeper on a plantation in which a friend, Dr Patrick Douglas, had an interest – his brother Charles owned and managed it.

Burns was well aware of the nature of this job. He would be a “poor Negro driver”. He might be able to sympathise with the workers he whipped into working all day under the tropical sun and harvesting the sugar cane. But whip them he would. If he could not contemplate even that much of his new life, then it was hardly worth going to Jamaica at all.

It is true that while making these arrangements, as the most secure backstop available to him, the national bard continued his efforts at least to get his work out in what became the Kilmarnock Edition, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, finally accepted by John Wilson, a printer in the Ayrshire town.

But Burns’s own estimate of the likely success of this venture is in my view revealed by the fact that at exactly the same time he had booked a passage from Glasgow to Kingston on the Nancy, then later still a passage from Leith to Kingston on the Roselle. It sounds to me as if he thought Kingston to be by far his most likely destination.

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In the end he stayed in Edinburgh, and tamed his instincts with various lady loves there. If, as seems likely, he had not persuaded one of them to go to the plantation with him, then he would have tamed his instincts in the way immigrants usually did in Jamaica, by finding a black girl to share his bed.

Most of these were young, seldom surviving far into their 20s and, of course, utterly submissive to the white men who took charge of them.

The fact that Scotland’s famous Bard thought of working on a plantation where he would need to mark up the purchases of enslaved African people, as well as record their punishments and deaths, is not pleasant to think about.

Perhaps worse is to find out how many young Scotsmen saw the slave trade as a promising career, even if abolition of it had already been proposed (it would come in 1806).

About 17,000 Scots emigrated to the Caribbean islands between 1750 and 1800, lured by job advertisements calling for men of practical trades – joiners, carpenters, blacksmiths – to work on estates with promises of “good encouragement”.

For a man who, like Burns, “writes a good hand and understands figures” there was particular demand as an overseer, with “handsome and liberal encouragement”.

However, commenting on the role of “under overseer or Negro driver” in 1773, a landowner admitted it to be “laborious, dangerous to health and disagreeable”, not the “calm sedentary life” some expected.

Had Burns travelled to Jamaica, he would no doubt have been appalled by the cruel realities of the plantations where enslaved Africans were forced to work under horrific conditions, arbitrarily punished and brutally tortured by white overseers or “bookkeepers”.

Burns’s life had many turns of fate. Financially, he faced ruin as a combination of his father’s death and the poor soil on the farm he worked with his brother had reduced them to near starvation. His love life was even more troubled.

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He had been nearly married to his first love Jean (to the horror of her parents and the Church) but they had agreed to separate (without knowing that Jean was pregnant with twins). Then Robert fell in love with another, Highland Mary, who died suddenly while waiting for him to come to her.

But the fact that hurts is that, like all West Indian plantations, the Douglas enterprise was firmly built on black slave labour. He was “only to be the bookkeeper”.

But being bookkeeper was as much about managing the assets as the numbers. Every day he would have come face to face with the truth of slavery – assisting in purchases, recording punishments and deaths. Burns describing his role as “a poor Negro driver” puts him more on the executive than the administrative arm.

History intervened, though, as, in a last defiance of his enemies, he published his poems to instant acclaim and Robert turned back from the ports towards the city of Edinburgh, fame and marriage.

But the worry remains: our poet had voluntarily contracted to become a manager of enslaved human beings. What sort of a humanitarian does that make him?