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.

Brochure [PDF]:
ARCHIPELAGIC IMPERATIVES

Order your printed copy for free!

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

Subproject(s)

Social Worlds and the Generality of Humanitarianism

2021–2024
Head researcher(s): Nebiha Guiga

Life-saving as a humanitarian cause was only one part of a larger project of building a better society made up of better men in 19th century France. The focal point of this project is the tension between the initial general humanitarian goal of saving lives and the construction of a specific cause towards which it worked in practice, the lifeboat movement. Only by studying the networks of actors who took part in it and determining who were the donors and who were the lifeboatmen and what distinguishes one group from the other is it possible to understand how discourses pertaining to both humanitarian generality and the specific cause of lifesaving at sea, as well as the tensions between them, are articulated.

Drawing on the rich sources of information provided by the Annales of the French lifeboat society, the Société Centrale de Sauvetage des Naufragés (SCSN), founded in 1865, the study identifies different groups of donors and examines the lifeboat society’s links to the French state as well as its inclusion in networks of maritime commerce on both a local and a global scale. Since sources relating to lifeboatmen are hard to find, a microhistorical approach is used to analyze the role that humanitarian generality played in their volunteering life.

The Question Concerning Morality in Humanitarian Technologies

2021–2024
Head researcher(s): Alexandra Heimes

The rapid technological developments that entered humanitarian practice during the first half of the 20th century—motorization, radio, radar, and airborne rescue craft—fundamentally altered the rescue activities in place at the time. They facilitated entirely new procedures, having a profound impact on the possible scope of rescue operations. In addition to the practical correlates of these technologies, they also bore on the framework of values and norms, as well as on the constitution of lifesaving from shipwreck as a specific type of situation. The normative order of the humanitarian saving of lives from shipwreck intersected with political and military normativities in unprecedented ways and caused open or latent frictions and symbolic, discursive, and practical adaptations. This project therefore explores the shifting dynamics that play out in the relationship between moral normativity and technical innovations, as well as between generalizing principles and situational factors.

Humanitarianism and Sovereignty

2021–2024
Head researcher(s): Lukas Schemper

Lifesaving is one of many activities regulated by sovereign states. Historically, sovereignty has seen multiple different definitions. However, since the 19th century, sovereignty has often meant the control of borders and the passing of laws within them. This subproject investigates the multifaceted links of the concept of sovereignty with shipwreck and lifesaving in the 19th century in two ways: First, the project explores the practice of sovereignty as a form of legal, (bio)-political, diplomatic, territorial, or in this case rather, maritime control, which became increasingly interlinked with humanitarian, commercial, and security issues. Secondly, it focusses on the figure of the sovereign who acted as supporter and patron of humanitarian initiatives, including lifesaving societies, and was vital to the creation and self-perception of these societies.

Historicising the Humanitarian Image: the Visual Culture of Shipwreck and the Moral Spectator

2021–2024
Head researcher(s): Jonathan Stafford

We are no strangers today to images of human suffering. Those affected by war, famine, disease, natural disaster, and other humanitarian emergencies fill the screens of our televisions, computers, and phones. Such images invite us to respond, as responsible citizen-subjects, in a register which is at once ethical and emotional—they elicit feelings of pity, compassion, empathy. The appropriateness of such a mode of engagement with the representation of suffering seems almost a given. Yet what are the historical origins of this topos? To what extent can we trace the discursive tropes which govern our moral and affective encounters with the humanitarian image—‘compassion fatigue’; the compulsion to look—through the iconography of suffering’s history?

The shipwreck at sea presents perhaps the most persistent subject matter in the secular iconography of suffering; from Dutch Golden Age painting of the 1600s; through the works of the 18th century French painter Claude-Joseph Vernet; to the proto-modernism of J.M.W. Turner. These images were produced concurrently with the rise of bourgeois social and cultural hegemony and the emergence of the ‘modern’ subject, in the terms of liberalism, the private individual. Increasingly, this was a figure whose constitution of their sense of self hinged upon a set of assumptions regarding their moral outlook on the world. Shipwreck images thus have much to tell us about the emergence of this modern subject, the history of emotions, and its relationship to morality.

Publications

Henning Trüper

Seuchenjahr

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

Jonathan Stafford

Events

Lecture
29 Jun 2023

Lukas Schemper: Sovereignty, International Organization, and the Moral Economy of Saving Lives at Sea in the Ottoman Empire

The Hague, Netherlands

read more
Lecture
25 May 2023

Lukas Schemper: Organizing Lifesaving at the 19th Century Bosporus

University of Turku, Finland

read more
Lecture
19 Nov 2022 · 4.30 pm

Lukas Schemper: Sovereignty, International Organization, and the Moral Economy of Saving Lives at Sea in the Late Ottoman Empire

Department of History, University of Warwick, Faculty of Arts Building, University Road, Coventry, CV4 7EQ, UK

read more
Lecture
12 Nov 2022 · 10.15 am

Henning Trüper: Modern Moral Meanings in Shipwreck Imagery

Senate House University of London, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU, UK

read more
Lecture
14 Jul 2022 · 4.00 pm

Johannes F. Lehmann: Politik der Rettung. Überlegungen zu einem politischen Narrativ jenseits von Sicherheit und Heil

Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL), Schützenstraße 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Etage, Trajekte-Tagungsraum

read more
Lecture
08 Jul 2022 · 11.15 am

Henning Trüper: The Humanitarian Present in the Long Nineteenth Century

Tallinn University, Mare Building, Uus-Sadama 5, 10120 Tallinn, Estonia

read more
Lecture
23 Jun 2022 · 11.30 am

Jonathan Stafford: Representing technological change at Sea: J.M.W. Turner and the steamship ‘revolution’

Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, 24, Fabianinkatu 22, Helsinki, Finland

read more
Lecture
23 Jun 2022 · 10.45 am

Henning Trüper: Sea spaces of humanitarianism around 1800

Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, 24, Fabianinkatu 22, Helsinki, Finland

read more
Lecture
16 Jun 2022 · 1.00 pm

Henning Trüper: Some thoughts on global history and the global present

University of Helsinki, Think Corner Stage, Yliopistonkatu 4, 00100 Helsinki, Finland

read more
Workshop
20 May 2022 – 21 May 2022

Moral Seascapes. Modern Transformations of the Imagery of Shipwreck

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

read more
Lecture
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

read more
Lecture
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

read more
Lecture
04 Dec 2021 · 3.30 pm

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

online

read more
Lecture
24 Nov 2021 – 25 Nov 2021

Nebiha Guiga: The emotions of surgery on Napoleonic battlefields

National Army Museum, London

read more
Lecture
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

read more
Lecture
13 Nov 2021 · 12.10 pm

Henning Trüper: Über Moralisches Geschehen

Centre Marc Bloch, Friedrichstraße 191, 10117 Berlin

read more
Lecture
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

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

Henning Trüper: Rettung und Geschichte

online via Zoom

read more

Contributions

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