A jury’s decision to clear four people of criminal damage after pulling down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston is a “milestone” in Britain coming to terms with its history, TV historian Professor David Olusoga has said.

The bronze memorial to the 17th century figure was pulled down during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol on June 7 2020, before being rolled into the water in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the US.

Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, and Sage Willoughby, 22, Jake Skuse, 33, were acquitted of criminal damage on Wednesday following an 11-day trial at Bristol Crown Court.

Black Lives Matter protests
The statue was pulled down on June 7 2020 (Ben Birchall/PA)

Professor Olusoga, who supported the defendants and gave expert evidence on the history of slavery, told the Guardian: “This verdict is a milestone in the journey that Bristol and Britain are on to come to terms with the totality of our history.”

He added: “For 300 years Edward Colston was remembered as a philanthropist, his role in the slave trade and his many thousands of victims were airbrushed out of the story.

“The toppling of the statue and the passionate defence made in court by the Colston Four makes that deliberate policy of historical myopia now an impossibility.”

However, others have slammed the verdict for setting a precedent for future attempts to pull other statues down.

Nile Gardiner, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher and director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, told the Telegraph: “It sets an extremely dangerous precedent. The result of this ruling will be that mobs will seek to tear down statues across the country – it gives a green light for mobs. This is unacceptable in a free society.”

Legal expert Adam Wagner said on Twitter: “This is an unusual result but also a prosecution which always gave rise to the risk of a jury not convicting. This is what juries sometimes do, a kind of societal pressure release valve.

“This doesn’t set a legal precedent as it is jury decision and on its own special facts – anyone damaging property in future would have no way of knowing if a jury would convict or acquit them. The law is as it was.”

None of the defendants denied their involvement in the incident, but claimed the presence of the statue was a hate crime, and that it was therefore not an offence to remove it.

In summing up, Judge Peter Blair QC told the jury to disregard such rhetoric about the weight and consequences of their decision, and try the case purely on the evidence in front of them.

The prosecution said during the trial it was “irrelevant” who Colston was, and the case was one of straightforward criminal damage.

David Olusoga interview
Professor Olusoga said the verdict is a milestone (Nutopia/BBC)

Ms Graham and Mr Ponsford brought ropes to the scene, while Willoughby climbed the statue to pass the ropes around its neck.

Mr Skuse was accused of goading the crowd into rolling it 500m to the harbour and throwing it in.

But the jury cleared the four accused after just under three hours of deliberations.

Speaking outside of court alongside protestors carrying banners reading “we toppled Colston” and “Glad Colston’s Gone”, Mr Willoughby denied they were trying to edit history.

He said: “We didn’t change history, they were whitewashing history by calling (Colston) a f****** virtuous man – sorry to swear.

“We didn’t change history, we rectified it.”

Mr Willoughby continued: “This is a victory for Bristol, this is a victory for racial equality and it’s a victory for anybody who wants to be on the right side of history.”

Speaking outside of court, Ms Graham said she was “overwhelmed” in the wake of the jury’s verdicts.