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\Studyworld\ Studyworld Studynotes \ Billy Budd:
Historical Context

Herman Melville began work on Billy Budd after retiring from a job at the Custom House in 1886. When he died in 1891, a manuscript of Billy Budd was found. It was first published by Raymond Weaver in 1924. It's difficult to understand what motivated Melville to write this particular work at this time in his life. He dedicated it to his heroic mentor Jack Chase, a shipmate of his on board the U.S. Frigate United States, but that was in 1843. Billy Budd is a fictional account of the events that occurred on a ship in the summer of 1797, the year of the Great Mutiny in the British navy. Again, it is hard to find a connection between the events at the turn of the nineteenth century with Melville's life near the end of the nineteenth century. But perhaps no compelling connection is necessary to explain why Billy Budd came about. Quite possibly, Melville simply wanted to write about the greatest time in British naval history. But since there were enough accounts of Admiral Nelson's heroic achievements, Melville wanted to focus on a time when it seemed as if the British navy was about to collapse yet somehow managed to hold things together ultimately to become the undisputed master of the seas. Billy Budd , among other things, is an analysis of how things were set right for the navy during this tumultuous time.
Two mutinies occurred in the spring of 1797, one at Spithead and the other at Nore. The mutiny at Nore was so serious that it went down in history as the Great Mutiny. These mutinies, which threatened to unravel the power structure of the navy, occurred mainly because the British navy simply had too many wars to fight and not enough volunteer enlistments to man their ships. At that time, the warships needed thousands of hands to operate all the sails and cannons, and for this reason the navy needed to impress - unlawfully seize - men wherever they could find them. With ships full of people not desiring to be there, it was not uncommon for the officers on deck to issue commands with swords drawn upon the backs of the sailors. In Billy Budd , Melville argues that in most cases, the British navy recovered from this tempestuous time period by sacrificing fairness in favor of order. The timing of the events in this story is such that it makes the right decision (to execute Billy Budd) the clearest yet the most difficult for Captain Vere.

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