Melville's Billy Budd: A Tale of a Sailor in the British Navy

Categories: Novel

Nicknamed as the “Handsome Sailor”, Billy Budd, 21 and young, is an athletic beaut sailor in the British naval fleet, during the summer of 1797. Billy Budd is quite the popular boy in the British fleet even though he recently joined the naval force. Returning to town, on the merchant ship The Rights of Man, was picked by Lieutenant Ratcliffe out of a group of men, to join him on the royal ship, Bellepointe- which was short of men. Captain Graveling, who is a respectable, 50-year-old man was Billy's captain on his last mission, is disappointed to see Billy go.

Graveling’s ship, The rights of Man, was in “black times” before Billy joined. When Billy joined, Captain Gravelings ship grew to be a successful ship. Graveling even said, “It was like a Catholic priest striking peace in a noisy environment”.

Billy's virtue rubbed off on the shipmates; “sugaring the sour ones”. Billy is well loved and respected on The rights of Man.

Get quality help now
checked Verified writer

Proficient in: Free Essays

star star star star 5 (339)

“ KarrieWrites did such a phenomenal job on this assignment! He completed it prior to its deadline and was thorough and informative. ”

avatar avatar avatar
+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

Graveling is worried if Billy goes away his ship will return to it's “dark times”. Ratcliffe says to not be downhearted and attempts to reassure Graveling that the “King would approve of this compliance” when most captains would complain. The chapter ends with Billy gathering his things, and the Bellepointe pushes off from Rights, Billy jumps up sorrowfully wave goodbye to Rights and his now former shipmates. Ratcliffe angrily sees this as being rude and insightful, so he yells at Billy to come down. Billy without knowing it is practically a fatalist because he's “foreign” to thinking about his actions.

Get to Know The Price Estimate For Your Paper
Number of pages
Email Invalid email

By clicking “Check Writers’ Offers”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We’ll occasionally send you promo and account related email

"You must agree to out terms of services and privacy policy"
Write my paper

You won’t be charged yet!

Billy does fine on the new ship, getting into his new routine, however, it isn't much similar to the last ship.

On this ship, the men are older, wiser and more experienced. Billy wasn't aware that the shipmates are more intelligent than him. Billy is described here as looking younger than he really is. Billy has “lingering” adolescent expression, smooth face and rosy cheeks, and tan. It is exposed here that Billy doesn't know his father or his birthplace. He was found on a “good man's doorstep in Bristol”. Billy's appearance looks as if he is of noble descent. Billy was illiterate, but could sing very well and has even composed songs. Another one of his qualities is that Billy stutters when he's most perplexed. Bellepointe was on its way to the Mediterranean fleet. The narrator notes not long ago there was a wave of mutinies on British naval ships, the horrible “Nore Mutiny”, which ended later due to sailors becoming loyal again, through various means such as fighting in battles, their training as subjects to the king or that conditions improved on ships, resulting in content sailors.

The Nore Mutiny was compared to an illness that affects man rapidly. The narrator says the Mutiny was because of small ratios of food, poor pay and impressed; taking men into the military by force. The mutiny was worse than Napoleon's fleets. Overall the Nore Mutiny was a horrible time in British naval fleets. The narrator takes a bypath to talk about the recent warfare inventions that have changed tactics in war. Like when gunpowder was introduced knights did not approve of it because they would rather fight with swords. However, the narrator wants to acknowledge the virtues that were present in the past. Uses “poetic reproach” to discuss the inventions back then that changed warfare, such as the wooden ships that are compared to the recent heavy iron ships. The Narrator talks of a present “gallantry” that is important and not seen enough today.

Refers to, Lord Nelson who is a pride and stubborn Admiral. Nelson would come to battle covered in his badges and medals, that if he died, he would at least die with his “honor”. Nelson's arrogance and pride caused lots of lives, and the narrator suggests if he wasn't so vain, he could have saved many lives. Even though people “fault” him, Narrator thinks we need leaders like him who strived to have “honest duty with glory”. The narrator compares that to Billy's prudent caption who is too worried about tomorrow, and not worried enough about today. The narrator says there is still tension from the recent mutinies, and captains still remain nervous that their crews would mutiny. There were two distinct ways captains would try to limit mutinies. One was using force and fear as a tactic, having swords drawn out to show they were powerful. The crew would not try to mutiny if they were fearful of the captains. Another tactic was to be a “gallant captain”, gallant captains would command respect and use their honor, respect and vigilance to “rub off” on men. But on the Bellepointe, there was no sign of mutiny present.

The crew was loyal to their captain; Captain Vere, who was 40 years old, and mindful to his men and very respected. Vere is a “down to earth” kind of guy as he likes to keep to himself and occasionally daze at the stars. However, he's ready to work when work needs to be done. Chapters 7-9 The narrator tells us more of Captain Vere because it is worth knowing for later on. The narrator goes on to say that life on the sea can be very boring for the mind. However, for Vere, this isn't much of a problem as he likes peace and quiet. Vere loves to read history and biography, and even brings a small library with him on each voyage he goes on. Here is also a “thinker” and has many opinions. Although to other men, this seems as Vere being a snobby odd man, which is the opposite as this is just Veres nature, and his way of being honest. He does not do this because he is trying to be “more superior” than his peers. The narrator goes on to say that we don't need to know the whole.

But that he should introduce a “petty officer” who has much to do with the story, his name is John Claggart. Claggart is a master-at-arms, whose job doesn't mean that much because the job is simply teaching men basic sword combat. This has recently become a more popular position because guns have increasingly been used in combat which leads to the master-at-arms duties increased. Claggart is 35 years old, tall and an intelligent guy with a huge forehead. Claggart's origins are uncertain. The narrator says it's possible he was a criminal, trying to escape land & joined the naval force to hide. There are rumors that Claggart was a criminal, but these rumors come from lower crewmembers. Although, the narrator says he's heard that police would take prisoners and put them on ships that need crew members. Either way, Claggart rose high up to master-at-arms and functioned as a “chief police” on deck. Claggart was a man with high quality and moral. On Bellepointe, life is going well for Billy.

Billy's eagerness to finish orders and do them right is because of a scene Billy witnessed, sailor getting whipped for a small mistake he made. This frightened Bily because he never wants to get punished, so he declared to never get in any trouble. However, Billy has been perplexing over the fact that he still gets in petty trouble for making minor mistakes, such as not storing away his hammock properly. This vexed Billy because he could not understand it, his top mates laughed at him or didn't believe him. The narrator adds in of a veteran aboard that at times foretopman would pick up an acquaintance with him and he is the person to go to for advice. The man is an old quiet Dansker, been in service for many years. The old Dankser was an Agamemnon man, 2 years ago he served under Nelson and received a long pale on his cheek from battle. The Dansker took a liking to Billy because Billy respected him. Billy decided to go to the old Dankser for advice. Billy recounted to him what was going on. Dankser said, “Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs is down on you!”. Billy was staggered that the Dansker would say that because Claggart has called him a “sweet and pleasant young fellow”. However, Dansker insists Claggart doesn't like him. Billy doesn't want to believe him. Chapters 10-12 The next day, Billy is down below deck, joking with other sailors. There was a stormy rainy day outside, so the ship lurches, causing Billy to drop and spill his soup, just as Claggart walks by.

Claggart ignores this at first and steps over it, but once he realizes it was Billy who dropped it, he turns around and sarcastically says “Handsomely done my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it, too!”. However, the other sailors took this as a playful joke, they all laughed and Billy laughed too and said: “There now, who says that Jemmy Legs is down on me!”. The narrator wonders why Claggart seems to dislike Billy. The narrator notes there was no incident that took place that would cause Claggar to dislike Billy, there is no reason but yet he does dislike Billy for some odd reason. The narrator says there can exist no irritating juxtaposition of different personalities comparable to those aboard on warship and at sea. Also notes that every day among all the ranks, almost every man comes in contact with another man. The narrator talks of “natural depravity: and says these men are madman, the most dangerous and that their lunacy is evoked by something special, which we cannot distinguish.

Narrator concludes that Claggart has “depravity according to nature” and that we don't know exactly why. It wasn't because of how he lived, what he read, etc, but mainly it is something in him that grew. Claggart is a man of mystery. The Narrator assumes that maybe when Billy dropped his soup, it was revealed what made Claggart dislike billy so much, maybe it was his handsomeness. Claggart's jealousy can easily cause him to hate. So Billy, as intelligent as he is, his “disdain of innocence - to be nothing more than innocent” is what caused him to not see the evil that is in Claggart. It is inferred that Billy's innocence, nature, and good looks are causing Claggart to feel evil against him, even though he knows Billy has done nothing wrong. Chapters 13-15 The narrator notes that passion can be set off by anything, the smallest nor biggest, and it can be found in anyone, no matter what rank you're in. The narrator says, in this case, the spilled soup provoked the “passion” in Claggart, which is his dislike of Billy.

Claggart knew when he insulted Billy, that he didn't have to because it was an accident, but that it allowed him to “answering to the antipathy of his own. The narrator judges that Claggart “infused the vitriol of his contempt” into his gall. Meaning, he infused cruelness, into his bold behavior. The narrator says the “incident confirmed to him” that Billy disliked him. He thinks this because “Squeak”, one of his corporals, has been telling him “insults” that Billy has been making about him behind his back, although this isn't true. Squeak also dislikes Billy and sees this as a way to get him in trouble. Days later after the incident, Billy was sound asleep on the deck. He was awoken by a stranger, who is an afterguard man. He whispered to Billy, to “slip into the fore-chains”, meet him out on the narrow platform on the ship. Billy doesn't find this alarming, and being the good guy he goes to meet him. Billy couldn't recognize the man. He said to him that there is a group of men who are going to mutiny because they are unsatisfied. He adds “couldn't you help at a pinch?”, holding up two guineas. He starts to say “they are yours, Billy, if you'd only-”, Billy, confused and stuttering, cuts him off asking what he means. He jumps up saying he will toss him over the ship if he doesn't explain. The stranger quickly left.

A forecastle man awoke from his sleep, hearing the little quarrel. He knew when he heard Billy stuttering that there must've been a serious situation. He asks what happened, Billy says he sent a guard back to his proper place. Another “gruffly man” asked if that's all he did. “Red Pepper” says he would've liked to really tell him off and in another sense, punish the man. Billy assures everything's been handled. Sailors are usually annoyed when someone's not in their place. Next day, Billy as puzzled. It was a brand new experience to him, he's never been approached that way ever. He wondered what it all means if those were really gold guineas he saw, and how he got them at sea. The more he thought about it, the more uneasy and discomfited he got. He instinctively knew it must evil some sort of evil. The narrator describes this as a “fresh horse” getting a “sniff from a chemical factory, keeps sniffing to find the smell”. Billy is the young boy trying to figure out this vile incident. He is curious to see the sailor on broad daylight. Surprisingly, Billy has found him (he's not sure), but the man was a young and chubby sailor. The man noticed he was staring, so he greeted Billy.

The sailor even greeted him one day nicely! Billy didn't know how to react. He doesn't want to tell on him, feared he would be a “tattle tale”. He decides to ask the old Dankser what he thinks. The wise man said this is more strong proof Claggart dislikes you. Billy confusedly said Claggart has nothing to do with this. The wise man said exclaimed A catspaw! A cat's paw!”. Could be a gust of air or the after guardsmen, we do not know. The Dankser knows that after an experience at sea, it's best he stay out of troubling matter for his sake. Chapters 16-17 Billy is still incredulous to the theory of Claggart being down on him. I can assume he's never had anyone hate him that badly before so he doesn't know how to handle it, after always being the favored popular guy. The narrator goes on a rant, that “in certain matters, some sailors even in mature life remain unsophisticated enough”.

Says Claggart is the “child-man”. Notes that an “ utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and the innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes”, and “Billy's years make his experience small”. I believe he compares that to Billy's situation. The narrator notes Billy has no intuitive knowledge of the bad in nature. The narrator says Billy does come from landsman, but n some ways he is distinct from him. Sailors do not live normal lives, of course being on the sea all the time and traveling. They are not the same as land people, whose narrator reports they are easy liers and know how to deceive people. Sailors, called “juvenile race” do not need to try to compete or demand anything, they just obey rumors and their simple life is “externally ruled for him”. Landsman deploys their dishonesty & lies so much that they would be surprised if anyone called them out for it. A while later, Billy found himself in strange trouble at times for his hammock, his clothes, etc.

Claggart even passed him pleasantly, even frequently, more pronounced than before. But for all that, Claggart would watch Billy joke and laugh with the other young sailors, and that his glance would follow Billy with a “settled meditative and melancholy expression”, his eyes filled with tears. Then he would look like a man of sorrows, and sometimes his expression would have “a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban”. But this ended quickly with an ”immitigable look, pinching and shriveling”. The narrator notes when he would encounter Billy, there was a quick and fierce red light in his eyes. And even the man who eats with Claggart, an armorer and a captain give Billy rude and disgust glances. This all goes unnoticed by Billy from his “irresistible good nature”. And the after guardsmen who woke Billy up, has now always passed a pleasant word or two. This makes Billy wonder what that night meeting really meant, either way, the sailor seemed to drop the whole “mutiny” plan.

The narrator notes Claggart's hatred was growing strong, “like a subterranean fire, was eating its way deeper and deeper in him. Something decisive must come out of it”. Chapter 18 The narrator says nothing new has been happening. He talks of the Bellepointe sometimes being dispatched as a scout, instead of with fleet. This was because of her captain, Captain Vere. In the afternoon that they sighted an enemy, they were trying to follow them. The enemy knows their outsizes so they try to flee, and they try to follow but give up because it's too fast. Later after all the excitement went away, Vere was encountered by Claggart. In a short summary, Vere was uneasy and felt even more uneasy that Claggart would come to him to talk. Vere only knows that Claggart was replaced by a man who became disabled. He says he had to tell that he knew a sailor that was dangerous. Vere has a very distasteful and a peculiar expression when Claggart talks to him.

Claggart told him that he gathered enough evidence that immunity might be planning. He was suspicious for a while, but now it's confirmed. He said he had a responsibility to tell Vere right away because of recent events, referring to the Nore Mutiny. Vere was taken back and said not to mention that out loud. Vere is feeling alarmed by Claggart and this news, he felt as if Claggart was trying to alarm him. Vere thinks some more and notes that should put down this “mutiny idea” before it gets too big, and yet he also considers to not react alarmingly, so he doesn't attract attention. Vere finds himself observing that Claggart acts irritated and unnatural in his talk. Vere wishes to know the man, Claggart says “William Budd, a foretopman, your honor”. Captain Vere replied in “unfeigned astonishment. Vere asks if he means the popular and handsome sailor that recently came to this ship. Clagarts confirms so, and that even though he appears a good-natured, he is not.

Claggart's theory is that Billy was bad from the beginning when he jumped up on the ship to say goodbye and that he makes sure the crew likes him so that “they will pinch say-all hands will- a good word for him and at all hazards”. Vere actually felt quite baffled at this fact, considering he was very impressed with his work, his attitude and even considered to make Billy captain of the “mizzen top” for his good work. He angrily asks Claggart for evidence for “so foggy a tale”. In short, Claggart responds with many accusations, which we don't know but can conclude they are lies. Vere is perplexed on how to respond. He decides to have a young sailor to get Billy and tell him to go to Captain's cabin. He tells Claggart to leave until Billy enters, to keep everything as discreet as possible without arousing suspicision.

Updated: May 03, 2023
Cite this page

Melville's Billy Budd: A Tale of a Sailor in the British Navy. (2022, Apr 06). Retrieved from

Melville's Billy Budd: A Tale of a Sailor in the British Navy essay
Live chat  with support 24/7

👋 Hi! I’m your smart assistant Amy!

Don’t know where to start? Type your requirements and I’ll connect you to an academic expert within 3 minutes.

get help with your assignment