The Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd is aged twenty-one when he is impressed into the British navy. He is tall and athletic with a body like Hercules, and he has a beautiful face that makes him look younger than he actually is. Billy is an innocent, something resembling Adam before he ate from the apple of knowledge, and he naturally trusts everyone and is ready to believe the best about people. He doesn't know where he was born or who his parents were because he was simply found at the door of a good man's house in Bristol. He is nearly a perfect specimen of the human form except for one crucial defect: when he gets angry or nervous, he gets tongue-tied and can hardly speak if at all.
Before he was impressed into the British naval warship, the Bellipotent, he was a member of the merchant marines. The captain of the ship that he was taken from, the Rights-of-Man, says that he will sorely miss Billy because he was the ship's peacemaker. Everyone seemed to calm down in Billy's presence, choosing to do him favors rather than bicker with one another. When Lieutenant Ratcliffe took Billy from the Rights, he broke the naval code of conduct (although he didn't realize it) when he stood up and waved goodbye to his former shipmates. He accepted his new position as foretopman aboard the Bellipotent cheerfully. It was a fairly leisurely existence as a foretopman, and Billy would have enjoyed it more except for the fact that he witnessed a vicious flogging of a man for a minor offense on his first day on the Bellipotent. Determined not to have that happen to him, he made sure that he followed all his orders. It was all the more puzzling then, when he found out that he was getting in trouble with the police on the ship. Billy sought the advice of an old wise man called the Dansker, who told him, "Jemmy Legs is down on you." He meant that Claggart (the master-at-arms) disliked him, but Billy didn't understand why, so he didn't believe it.
The next day, when they were traveling through some rough weather, Billy spilled his soup just as Claggart was passing by. Claggart cracked a joke about it, and this assured Billy that the Dansker had to be wrong about Claggart. A few days later, an afterguardsman approached Billy asking him to join up with a gang of mutineers that was forming on board. Billy, after stuttering a bit, threatened to toss the man overboard if he didn't leave. The afterguardsman left him, but Billy couldn't stop thinking about the incident. He again went to the Dansker to ask for advice, and again the Dansker replied, "Jemmy Legs is down on you." This made no sense to Billy, and so he just tried to forget about the whole thing.
Soon thereafter, the Bellipotent is involved in a chase of an enemy frigate. Since the frigate was smaller and faster, it got away. Claggart used this opportunity to accuse Billy of being a traitor to the captain. Captain Vere called both of the men into his cabin to settle the matter. When Claggart repeated the accusations about Billy's involvement in a mutiny, Billy Budd froze up (not because he was guilty but because he got nervous). Not knowing what to say to defend himself, Billy Budd struck Claggart on the head so hard that it killed him. In accordance with the law at wartime, Billy was condemned to hang for his deed by a court convened that evening. Captain Vere, a father figure, told Billy what his fate was, and Billy accepted it honorably. In the morning, just before they hung him, Billy said, "God Bless Captain Vere!" and the crew on board witnessing the execution echoed that sentiment. The strange thing that occurred during his hanging was that he didn't show any spasms, which was completely unnatural. No one could explain the reason behind it.
His full name is Edward Fairfax Vere, a bachelor of about forty years and the captain of the H.M.S. Bellipotent. His naval career got a jumpstart because he was from an aristocratic family well placed in the British navy (a relative of his is also a captain), but he earned his way up the ranks by proving himself to be a fair and effective leader. He became captain the day he helped Admiral Rodney defeat the French forces in the West Indies. Captain Vere is better known as "Starry Vere" in the British navy because his cousin gave him that name the day he returned victorious from the West Indies. The nickname happened to stick because it helped to distinguish him from his older relative who was also a captain. Vere is one of the best captains of his time, but no one would guess by looking at him. He is extremely intelligent and educated, and he loves his philosophical books. Fellow captains therefore find him a bit boring and bookish but they admit that he is probably the navy's most efficient captain. No matter the situation, Captain Vere has the ability to make a decision without allowing personal preferences to get in the way.
After the failed pursuit of an enemy frigate, Captain Vere was walking around somewhat annoyed at the frigate's escape. He knew that he didn't do anything wrong since the enemy frigate was smaller and faster, but he was still hoping that he could catch it. Vere noticed that Claggart was waiting on deck to have a word with him. Vere told Claggart to speak, and Claggart revealed to the captain that he suspected a mutiny. Vere thought that Claggart must be exaggerating, but he asked Claggart to continue. When Claggart revealed that Billy Budd was his prime suspect, Vere was shocked. As Claggart explained to the captain why he thought Billy was guilty, Vere thought that Claggart must be wrong. Vere called Claggart and Billy into his cabin to discuss the matter in private. When Billy joined them, Vere instructed Claggart to repeat the accusations to Billy's face. Billy was shocked by Claggart's words, and he couldn't speak even though he tried again and again to say something. Vere tried to calm Billy down by putting a hand on his shoulder, but then all of a sudden Billy's arm flew out and hit Claggart in the head so hard that it killed him.
Vere dismissed Billy to a nearby stateroom to await further instruction while he called a surgeon to examine Claggart. As the surgeon began his inspection, Vere began shouting that Billy was an angel sent by God to strike down the infidel, Claggart. After the surgeon confirmed what they both knew, that Claggart was dead, Vere calmed down and explained what had happened. Vere then ordered the surgeon to get the lieutenants and the captain of the marines for a meeting of the drumhead court (a court-martial held on the spot in times of war). The court was held in Vere's cabin, and the captain was the only witness. As much as it pained him, Vere told the story and revealed Billy's guilt in the process. Billy confirmed the truth of Vere's statements, but he denied any mutinous or murderous intent. After Billy was dismissed from the court, Vere gave a speech to the three officers basically saying that even though in their hearts they knew that Billy was innocent, they had to follow the letter of the law - especially at this precarious time when a wrong decision could start a real mutiny. Therefore, it was decided that Billy would hang in the morning, and Vere delivered to news to Billy himself. Vere then called the entire crew on deck to give a brief account of what had taken place and to tell them that Billy will be executed.
In the morning before the sunrise, Vere stood in front of the crew to watch over the execution. Right before Billy was lifted, he yelled, "God Bless, Captain Vere!" and the crew echoed those words. After his hanging, Vere gave commands to keep the crew busy with activity so that they wouldn't talk or think too much about what had happened. On their return to the rest of the fleet, the Bellipotent crossed paths with the French vessel called the Athee (the Atheist). In the resulting battle, Vere got hit by a musket ball, which gave him a fatal wound. As he lay dying, his last words to his attendant were "Billy Budd, Billy Budd."
A man with a very mysterious background, Claggart is the master-at-arms (a chief of police) on board the Bellipotent. Aged about thirty-five, he is somewhat skinny and tall. Other than an unusually broad chin, his face is handsome and his brow bespeaks of an above average intellect. By his light complexion and his smooth hands, it's obvious that he has not spent much time working on a ship. Since he had no naval experience whatsoever, Claggart started out by draining sewage below the hatches. But because of his quick wit and fierce determination, he worked his way up swiftly to become the master-at-arms. Since it is his job to snitch on the other sailors and get them into trouble, no one likes the master-at-arms. Fellow crewmembers especially dislike Claggart because he is so secretive about his past, and they have even started rumors that Claggart must have been a criminal before he joined the navy. Criminal or no, Claggart is something that the other sailors never suspect because he hides it so well. He is evil in a way that most of them can never understand. Placed next to the pure goodness that is Billy Budd, Claggart sees everything that he is not, and he tries to destroy Billy.
By his behavior toward Billy, one of Claggart's underlings, Squeak, realized that Claggart disliked Billy. Squeak subsequently gave Billy petty grievances for a messy hammock and he gave Claggart false reports that Billy said bad things about Claggart. Not understanding why the police targeted him in particular, Billy sought the advice of an old wise man called the Dansker. The Dansker correctly perceived that Claggart disliked Billy (in his words, "Jemmy Legs is down on you"), but Billy refused to believe it. The next day, Claggart was walking by in the dining hall as they sailed in some rough weather. A bowl of soup spilled right in front of Claggart on the newly scrubbed floor, and he was about to step over it and forget that it ever happened until he saw who spilled the soup - Billy Budd. Instead of yelling at Billy, which was what he wanted to do, Claggart checked himself and made a joke out of it. He didn't want to give away that fact that he hated Billy, and his joke succeeded in convincing Billy that Claggart liked him. On his way out of the mess hall, he bumped into a drummer boy who fell to the ground. Still angry about Billy's soup, Claggart yelled at the boy to watch where he was going.
On some level, Claggart understood that the spilling of the soup was an accident, but he had difficulty believing this with Squeak's negative reports and his own prejudices against Billy. Claggart thought that Billy spilled the soup at Claggart's feet on purpose as an insult to the way the police had been treating him. Based on this, Claggart concluded that Billy was trying to start a mutiny and Claggart would do everything in his power to convict Billy of high treason. After a failed pursuit of a small French frigate, Claggart sees his opportunity to frame Billy as if his actions somehow allowed the quicker French vessel to escape. Playing upon Vere's pride, Claggart convinces the captain to deal with the issue of Billy's supposed treason. After the three gather in the captain's private cabin, Claggart repeats that Billy is a traitor to his face. Billy goes white in the face at the accusation and his speech impediment doesn't allow Billy to defend himself. It appears that Claggart is about to win, but then suddenly, Billy's arm flies out and strikes Claggart in the head so hard that it kills him. His remains are buried at sea without much fanfare.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Chapter 3 and 4
Chapter 5 and 6
Chapter 7 and 8
Chapter 10 and 11
Chapter 12 and 13
Chapter 14 and 15
Chapter 16 and 17
Chapter 19 and 20
Chapter 22 and 23
Chapter 24 and 25
Chapter 26 and 27
Chapter 28, 29, and 30