Friday, June 15, 2012

This day in History: Jun 15, 1215: Magna Carta sealed & 1904: River excursion ends in tragedy

Jun 15, 1215: Magna Carta sealed

Following a revolt by the English nobility against his rule, King John puts his royal seal on the Magna Carta, or "Great Charter." The document, essentially a peace treaty between John and his barons, guaranteed that the king would respect feudal rights and privileges, uphold the freedom of the church, and maintain the nation's laws. Although more a reactionary than a progressive document in its day, the Magna Carta was seen as a cornerstone in the development of democratic England by later generations.

John was enthroned as king of England following the death of his brother, King Richard the Lion-Hearted, in 1199. King John's reign was characterized by failure. He lost the duchy of Normandy to the French king and taxed the English nobility heavily to pay for his foreign misadventures. He quarreled with Pope Innocent III and sold church offices to build up the depleted royal coffers. Following the defeat of a campaign to regain Normandy in 1214, Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury, called on the disgruntled barons to demand a charter of liberties from the king.

In 1215, the barons rose up in rebellion against the king's abuse of feudal law and custom. John, faced with a superior force, had no choice but to give in to their demands. Earlier kings of England had granted concessions to their feudal barons, but these charters were vaguely worded and issued voluntarily. The document drawn up for John in June 1215, however, forced the king to make specific guarantees of the rights and privileges of his barons and the freedom of the church. On June 15, 1215, John met the barons at Runnymede on the Thames and set his seal to the Articles of the Barons, which after minor revision was formally issued as the Magna Carta.

The charter consisted of a preamble and 63 clauses and dealt mainly with feudal concerns that had little impact outside 13th century England. However, the document was remarkable in that it implied there were laws the king was bound to observe, thus precluding any future claim to absolutism by the English monarch. Of greatest interest to later generations was clause 39, which stated that "no free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed] or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised...except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." This clause has been celebrated as an early guarantee of trial by jury and of habeas corpus and inspired England's Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679).

In immediate terms, the Magna Carta was a failure--civil war broke out the same year, and John ignored his obligations under the charter. Upon his death in 1216, however, the Magna Carta was reissued with some changes by his son, King Henry III, and then reissued again in 1217. That year, the rebellious barons were defeated by the king's forces. In 1225, Henry III voluntarily reissued the Magna Carta a third time, and it formally entered English statute law.

The Magna Carta has been subject to a great deal of historical exaggeration; it did not establish Parliament, as some have claimed, nor more than vaguely allude to the liberal democratic ideals of later centuries. However, as a symbol of the sovereignty of the rule of law, it was of fundamental importance to the constitutional development of England. Four original copies of the Magna Carta of 1215 exist today: one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and two in the British Museum.


Jun 15, 1904: River excursion ends in tragedy


More than 1,000 people taking a pleasure trip on New York City's East River are drowned or burned to death when a fire sweeps through the boat. This was one of the United States' worst maritime disasters.

The riverboat-style steamer General Slocum was built in 1890 and used mostly as a vehicle for taking large groups on day outings. On June 15, the St. Mark's German Lutheran Church assembled a group of 1,360 people, mostly children and teachers, for their annual Sunday School picnic. The picnic was to take place at Locust Point in the Bronx after a cruise up the East River on the General Slocum.

At about 9 a.m., the dangerously overcrowded boat left its dock in Manhattan with Captain William Van Schaik in charge. As the boat passed 83rd Street, accounts indicate that a child spotted a fire in a storeroom and reported it to Captain Van Schaik. Reportedly the captain responded, "Shut up and mind your own business." But as the smoke became more obvious, crew members were sent to investigate. By this time, the storeroom, filled with a combination of oil and excelsior (wood shavings used for packing), was blazing out of control. The onboard fire hose, which had never been used, tested or inspected, did not work.

Captain Van Schaik made a fateful decision at this time. Instead of directing the boat to the nearest dock where firefighters could engage the fire, he pointed the boat toward a small island in the East River. He later told investigators that he did not want to risk spreading the fire to the dock and the rest of the city, but the strategy proved deadly for the passengers. Instead of grounding the boat on the sand, the boat crashed onto the rocks of the island's shore.

At this point, other factors also combined to exacerbate the situation. The lifeboats were so firmly tied to the steamer that they could not be released. The life preservers had not been filled with cork, but a non-buoyant material that made them weighty. The children who used them sank to the bottom of the river. Other children were trampled to death in the panic. More people were killed when the raging fire collapsed some of the decks, plunging them into the fire.

In all, 630 bodies were recovered and another 401 were missing and presumed dead. A cannon was brought to the scene and fired over the river the next day to loosen bodies from the river mud. The boat's crew, and officers in the Knickerbocker Company, owner and operator of the General Slocum, were charged with criminal negligence. However, only Captain Van Schaik received a prison sentence. He was supposed to serve 10 years, but was pardoned due to old age in 1908. President Theodore Roosevelt fired the chief inspector of the U. S. Steamboat Inspection Service in the aftermath of the accident; wholesale changes in the industry followed. A mass grave was set up in Queens for the victims and a yearly memorial was held to honor their memory.

 Taken from: [15.06.2012]

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