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\Studyworld\ Studyworld Studynotes \ Billy Budd:
Chapter 21

The surgeon thought that the heat of moment made the captain a little crazy. Of course, the surgeon did not take into consideration all the factors that Vere did. It was the worst timing since the two mutinies occurred only months before and they were still fresh in everyone's mind. Billy Budd had been accused of mutiny, and in response, he struck down a superior officer (a mutinous act itself, in addition to a capital crime). Vere knew that he had to act quickly and severely in order to suppress any mutinous intent on board his ship. At the same time, he felt that Billy was not entirely guilty of the crime, and therefore needed time to sort through it all. During this time, the officers and crewmembers did not like the secrecy surrounding the affair and began to doubt Vere's effectiveness as a captain. The reason he called the drumhead court was because he wanted to share the moral responsibility of whatever punishment they decide for Billy Budd, rather than to have the full burden on himself.
Captain Vere chose the officer of the marines to sit at the drumhead court even though it was not the general custom because he thought that the soldier was the most intelligent and fair officer of his crew. The other two, the first lieutenant and the sailing master, were called because of custom. The court was held in Vere's cabin, and the captain was the only witness. Vere gave as testimony a full narration of the events that had led up to the murder. The first lieutenant asked Billy if the events happened as the captain said. Billy Budd said that Vere was telling the truth but that Claggart was lying when he said that Billy was a traitor. Vere said that he believed Billy, and they were both on the verge of tears. In response to another question, Billy said that there was no bad blood between him and Claggart and that he didn't mean to kill him. It was just that Claggart lied to his face and he had to defend himself but could only do it with his fist.
The next question was whether Billy knew of mutiny gathering on board. Billy was silent for a while. He didn't want to be a snitch, and also bringing the matter up now would only make them ask why Billy didn't report it sooner. Billy just hoped that there was no mutiny being planned anymore, and his reply to the court was a no. The officer of the marines asked one last question: why did the master-at-arms make up such a vicious lie if there was no bad blood between them? Billy could not come up with any answer to this question, and he looked to Captain Vere to help him out of the jam. Vere rose and explained that the only one who can answer that question is the dead master-at-arms. Vere went on to argue that the question is not important to this trial - all that they should be concerned with is the matter of deciding a proper punishment for Billy Budd's deed. With that, the first lieutenant took charge again of the trial and asked Billy if there was anything he wished to add. Billy looked at Vere and got the hint that he should say no more. A marine escorted Billy back to the stateroom, his makeshift prison cell, and the trial continued.
The room was quiet for a while after Billy Budd left. The three court officers didn't know what to decide, and Captain Vere was pacing back and forth thinking over what he wanted to say to the three officers. What he ended up saying to them, to a large extent, went right over their heads because his logic was more sophisticated than they were used to. In simple terms, he said that he knew that this was a difficult moral decision to make but that they needed to stick to the letter of the law. They all feel that Billy is innocent of the crime, but they can't let their feelings take over when they're in the service of the King. In the navy, they have to administer the law as it is written even if it goes against what they feel in their hearts. Even if Billy did not intend to kill, they have to follow a stricter set of rules at wartime, as dictated by the laws of the Mutiny Act. It says that intent does not matter in this case, and that Billy Budd must die. Everyone knows what the proper punishment should be, and the consequence of allowing Billy to live will only fuel another outbreak of mutiny. They will be perceived as being too afraid to carry out the law because of the recent mutinies. At that, Vere left the three to decide.
The three officers more or less agreed that there was no choice but to condemn Billy to death. The three men must have been in a similar mindset to the commander of another ship in 1842, called the Somers, also required to order the execution of three sailors caught trying to seize control of the ship. At wartime, the officers don't have the luxury of time to make their decisions, and it would be hard for us to criticize them for making the wrong decision because they had to decide quickly. Thus, Billy was scheduled to hang in the early morning watch. At wartime, these life-and-death decisions are carried out swiftly without appeal.

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Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3 and 4
Chapter 5 and 6
Chapter 7 and 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10 and 11
Chapter 12 and 13
Chapter 14 and 15
Chapter 16 and 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19 and 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22 and 23
Chapter 24 and 25
Chapter 26 and 27
Chapter 28, 29, and 30


 

 



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