EDINBURGH’S statues were never more than a rough guide to how much particular people had been esteemed by the nation – and of course the fashions change.

Most of these statues adorning public spaces of the capital were commissioned and paid for by friends and admirers of the person standing up there. They tell us something about the values of the donors, and in this way they tell us something about the values of their time. To destroy things like that is to me the same as destroying historical documents.

We are not talking here about statues as accurate guides to history. It may seem incredible that two of the greatest Scottish minds, philosopher David Hume and economist Adam Smith, have only been commemorated in this fashion for a quarter of a century. On the other hand, nowadays many more passers-by look at the statue of Walter Scott than read his books or echo his opinions. I am certainly one who finds it an absurd idea that the present generation should seek to impose its views and tastes on a past one. Let our statuary rather be a record of human fickleness. In the end it should say to us: “You can’t be sure anything you believe is true.”

Still, I also think there should be limits. For me, one of those limits was reached last week when I read how a “permanent new piece of public art reflecting Edinburgh’s part in the Caribbean slave trade and inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement is to be commissioned for the city”.

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In fact Edinburgh’s part in the Caribbean slave trade was minimal. Its Scottish centre lay in Glasgow, for the simple fact that Glasgow faced the right way, out into the Atlantic Ocean to be traversed by Scotland’s traffic in tobacco, sugar and other crops grown by slaves.

In those stormy waters it was preferable to keep voyages as short as possible, and that was what ships setting out from Glasgow offered. There were several ports in the Clyde estuary where they could dock, which was impossible for ocean-going vessels at the Shore in Leith (Edinburgh’s equivalent waterway), given the state of naval architecture at the time. For this reason the capital’s commerce was largely with places round the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. That remained so till the expensive, indeed ruinous improvements to the Port of Leith in the 19th century, by which time the slave trade had ceased.

I have looked at websites now appearing to accuse Edinburgh of complicity in the slave trade, and they all centre round one single, false accusation. It concerns Henry Dundas, who was the capital’s MP at the end of the 18th century and, by dint of occupying various high offices in the UK Government, the virtual ruler of Scotland. He was the first Scot since the Union of 1707 to advance that far in the politics of Westminster, and most contemporaries reckoned him to have been a benefactor of his own nation. This is why we have been left with so many buildings and streets named after him and so many memorials to his achievements.

As a matter of fact, Dundas was an opponent of the slave trade. To the House of Commons he said plainly in 1792, “the slave trade ought to be abolished”. This is a statement admitting of no ambiguity, and I challenge his present-day critics to show me, out of all the thousands of words he spoke and wrote, a single sentence that in any way modifies the stance he took there. They will find none because there is none.

It should come as no surprise to anybody who takes the trouble to scan Dundas’s long and varied political career. One of its themes was the promotion of rational liberty, for Scots and others. After his defence in the Court of Session of Joseph Knight, a black Jamaican brought back by his owner, slavery was declared illegal inside Scotland. In the native population, the miners had the medieval status of serfs lifted from them by Dundas. He relieved Catholics and Episcopalians of civil disabilities.

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At the Union of Ireland with Great Britain in 1801, he wanted Irish Catholics to get the vote for the first time. King George III refused and Dundas resigned in protest, so bringing his quarter-century in government to an end. All the way along, he had been this sort of liberal, seeking to get rid of archaic restrictions on individual and collective freedom that the three kingdoms under the crown inherited from their history.

DUNDAS was in other words an enlightened figure, as well as a personal friend and political patron of giants of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. But how is this undoubted status to be reconciled with what we have been seeing of Dundas in the Scottish media in recent weeks, with him in effect condemning thousands of blacks to slavery in the plantations of the West Indies? The short answer is that the two stories cannot be reconciled, and for the reason that the image of Dundas as a slave-driver is wrong.

It is the work of a born Jamaican, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, former professor of brewing at Heriot-Watt University. He is not a historian and does not use a historian’s methodology, as Sir Tom Devine has pointed out. All the same, Palmer struck lucky in mounting his campaign against Dundas at a time when, with the slogan Black Lives Matter, past sufferings are being revisited.

That does not make the case against Dundas any stronger. It rests on the fact that he was chosen for a useful role when the UK Government of William Pitt the Younger decided it wanted to bring the transatlantic slave trade to an end. The trouble was the lack of support for this move in the House of Commons. The abolitionist MP, William Wilberforce, had already put forward several motions to abolish the trade, but failed with all of them. Many politicians were slave-owners or partners in businesses with profits from the plantations.

Dundas (along with the rest of his family) owned nothing in the West Indies himself. But he knew dozens who did, for he had an office in the city of London and went there every morning. As the Government’s lobbyist, he sought a deal as many as possible could accept. In the end this came down to promising that the abolition of the slave trade would be gradual.

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As a matter of fact it had to be gradual anyway, since an entire economic system could not just be quashed overnight. It mattered, though, that the Government conceded the point. When the crucial vote came on in that hostile House of Commons, gradual abolition won by 230 to 85.

It was momentous – the first victory ever for the abolitionists, a visible and irreversible step towards their ultimate goal. It came because the Government had been ready to compromise. How does parliamentary politics ever work except through compromise? If there had been no compromise there would have been no victory, indeed no progress. All was owed to Dundas.

Still, in the parliamentary system the measure had also to go through the House of Lords, and there it failed. Little more happened till 1807, when the slave trade was finally ended, again with a cautious interval between enactment and enforcement. The same happened again in 1833 at the abolition of slavery altogether in the British Empire. Dundas had laid down a procedure that achieved its aims while maintaining the vital interests of a great power. It was nothing to shout about, but for the future a key part of how government would work.