Archipelagic Imperatives. Shipwreck and Lifesaving in European Societies since 1800

The project aims 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 develops 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 examines 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 focuses 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 focuses on the oldest forms of sea rescue movements in Britain, the Netherlands, France and Germany, from the early nineteenth into the mid-twentieth century. The project works 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 aims 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 will help 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 ties in with the project Humanitarian Imperatives. Saving Lives from Nautical Distress and Shipwreck in Modern Europe, which was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) from 2019 to 2020.


further information about the project

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

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme 2020–2025
Head researcher(s): Henning Trüper


Henning Trüper


Kleine Edition 33
August Verlag, Berlin 2021, 176 pages
ISBN 978-3-941360-83-9
DOI 10.52438/avaa1002 (Open Access)

Henning Trüper

Lukas Schemper


20 May 2022 – 21 May 2022

Moral Seascapes. Modern Transformations of the Imagery of Shipwreck

Institut für Germanistik, Universität Wien, Universitätsring 1, 1010 Wien

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06 May 2022 · 2.00 pm

Henning Trüper: Writing Work and Authorship in Historiography

Luxembourg Learning Centre, Belval Campus, 7, Ënnert den Héichiewen, 4362 Esch an der Alzette, Luxemburg

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21 Apr 2022 · 4.00 pm

Mikko Huhtamies: From Salvage to Lifesaving in the 18th-Century Baltic

Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage, Trajekteraum

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04 Dec 2021 · 3.30 pm

Nebiha Guiga: Piles of limbs and human souls: Disgust and distancing towards wounded soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars


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24 Nov 2021 – 25 Nov 2021

Nebiha Guiga: The emotions of surgery on Napoleonic battlefields

National Army Museum, London

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18 Nov 2021 · 4.00 pm

Aurélien Portelli: Surviving to the machines: coping with extreme situations in a context of industrial disaster and shipwreck

Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage, Trajekteraum

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13 Nov 2021 · 12.10 pm

Henning Trüper: Über Moralisches Geschehen

Centre Marc Bloch, Friedrichstraße 191, 10117 Berlin

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15 Jun 2021 · 12.30 pm

Henning Trüper: Rescuing the dead from oblivion: humanitarian morality and historical discourse

Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Campus de Getafe, Edificio Ortega y Gasset

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Inaugural Lecture at the University of Zurich
03 May 2021 · 6.15 pm

Henning Trüper: Rettung und Geschichte

online via Zoom

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03 May 2021 Video
“Rettung und Geschichte”
Inaugural lecture by Henning Trüper at Zurich University
© Universität Zürich