Painting of a wooden lifeboat being pulled through the dunes towards the sea by several horses. It is accompanied by a large group of sailors in fishing hats.

Humanitarian Imperatives. Saving Lives from Nautical Distress and Shipwreck in Modern Europe

The project aimed to investigate the history of a particular moral norm—the imperative of saving lives from shipwreck and nautical distress—and on this basis to contribute to an improved understanding of the history of humanitarianism. On the basis of this investigation, the project also developed novel perspectives on the historical character and cultural situatedness of moral norms in general. Since 1823/24, humanitarian volunteer organizations for saving lives from shipwreck were established in Britain and the Netherlands that set up networks of lifeboat stations with national scope. Local, often transient initiatives had preceded these organizations since the 1760s. Until around 1870 other countries followed suit, in particular in Northern and Western Europe. Within a few decades, a mostly urban-bourgeois milieu succeeded in persuading the mostly rural, often impoverished coastal population to acknowledge the universal validity of an imperative according to which it was obligatory, under almost all circumstances and almost without regard to one’s own existential risk, to attempt the rescue of the shipwrecked. Previously, assistance to the shipwrecked had remained occasional. Neither technological innovations nor economic incentives explain the emergence of the new humanitarian movements. Hence, the analysis of moral culture becomes central.

The project examined the question of why and how the novel imperative emerged, how it was sustained, and what consequences emanated from it in culture and society. The investigation focused on (1) the “moral economy,” the hybrid values embraced by the social movements for saving lives from shipwreck; (2) the culturally given patterns of discourse and practice around lifesaving and shipwreck; (3) the work lifeboat movements invested in achieving distinction from other moral and humanitarian ventures; and (4) discussing the consequences of this historical analysis for positions in moral theory, especially meta-ethics.

The project focused on the oldest forms of sea rescue movements in Britain, the Netherlands, France and Germany, from the early 19th into the mid-20th century. The project worked with a diverse source base (archival and published documents, image sources) and a combination of methods (hermeneutic textual analysis, discourse analysis, iconography, media history, theoretical argument, intellectual history).

The analysis of this problematic aimed more broadly at a theoretical understanding of the manner in which humanitarian moral norms emerge around mere single issues instead of general principles. This understanding helps to explain the lasting incoherence and fragmentation of humanitarianism as it has emerged historically, as well as its distance to quotidian moral discourse.

The research will be continued from 2020 to 2025 in the project Archipelagic Imperatives. Shipwreck and Lifesaving in European Societies since 1800, funded by the European Research Council (Consolidator Grant), Horizon 2020.


Fig. above: Michael Peter Ancher: Redningsbåden køres gennem klitterne, 1883 (Detail). Source: Wikimedia

German Research Foundation (DFG) 2019–2020
Head researcher(s): Henning Trüper