Melville begins Billy Budd by describing a kind of archetypal "Handsome Sailor," who could often be found where sailors congregated ashore. Such a sailor seemed to be naturally superior to his shipmates, and was highly regarded by them. The narrator gives an example of a black sailor he once observed in the English port of Liverpool. He was a tall, jovial figure who was always at the center of his company of shipmates. The "Handsome Sailor" was invariably a proficient sailor, extremely strong, probably excelling also in boxing or wrestling. He was the kind of man that others told admiring tales about. He also possessed high moral qualities to go with his physical strength and grace, and these were also recognized by his shipmates.
Such a "Handsome Sailor" was twenty-one-year-old Billy Budd, a foretopman in the British fleet towards the end of the last decade of the eighteenth century. He had been forced into service on the warship, H.M.S. Indomitable, after serving on a merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man. Although Billy was the only one of the merchantmen who was "impressed" (forced) into service he did not protest.
In the captain's cabin of the merchant ship, Captain Graveling tells Lieutenant Radcliffe of the Indomitable a story about Billy Budd, whom he regards as his best sailor. Before Billy arrived on the ship, the crew were always quarreling amongst themselves. But Billy's presence seemed to spread a peaceful influence around him, and the quarrels ceased. Billy was extremely popular amongst the men. Only one man, nicknamed Red Whiskers, disliked Billy and tried to provoke him. Billy lashed out and gave the man a beating. After this, Red Whiskers renounced his dislike of Billy and was as fond of him as all the other sailors were. The sailors would do anything for Billy. Captain Graveling fears that now Billy is to be taken away, his men will go back to quarreling.
Lieutenant Radcliffe, who has a liking for drink and is enjoying the Captain's hospitality, says that the King will be delighted to hear that the captain surrendered without argument his best sailor to the King's service.
Billy boards the boat that will take him to the Indomitable. As the boat passes under the stern of the Rights-of-Man, Billy jumps up from the bow and shouts a farewell to his shipmates and to his ship. Billy's actions are a breach of decorum, and Lieutenant Radcliffe tells him to sit down. Radcliffe suspects that Billy was attempting to protest at his being forced into service, but in fact, there was no such intention in Billy's words. He did not resent being forcibly enlisted.
On the Indomitable, Billy Budd is assigned to the starboard watch of the foretop, which was a platform at the head of the foremast. He quickly gets used to his assignment and goes about it cheerfully, unlike some of his other shipmates who were also "impressed."
Billy's position in the life of the warship is likened to a beautiful country girl who has come from the provinces and is now in competition with the higher born women of the court. The other sailors, who have seen many battles, are more hardened than he. Everyone on the ship has a favorable impression of Billy. When a captain questions him about his origins, he is impressed by the simplicity and straightforwardness of Billy's replies. It turns out that Billy is a foundling-an abandoned baby who was found in a basket hanging from a door knocker in Bristol. The suggestion is that Billy Budd may be of noble descent.
Billy is illiterate and has had little education in the usual sense of the word, but his nature is entirely unsophisticated, without guile. His has not been corrupted by anything. The only defect in him is that on occasion he has a stammer. The stammer would occur if he was provoked of if he felt something deeply.
The first two chapters introduce the main character and place him in the environment in which the story is to take place. Melville does not introduce Billy Budd until the sixth paragraph of the story. He uses the first five paragraphs to set up a series of images of an exceptional, universal type of man, the "Handsome Sailor," of which Billy Budd is to be another embodiment. By this archetype he suggests a kind of natural strength, beauty and vivacity uncorrupted by civilization, an "upright barbarian," as the narrator describes Billy.
The descriptions of Billy are also infused with Biblical symbolism that emphasizes his innocence and sinlessness. In chapter 2 he is described as wholly without "the wisdom of the serpent," which suggests he is like Adam before the Fall. It was the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, promising wisdom in exchange for the eating of the apple. Two paragraphs later the allusion becomes explicit when Billy is described as "like Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company." Melville adds to this by seeming to equate the Fall of man with the growth of civilization, what he calls "citified man." Billy Budd is therefore the representative of the innocent purity of nature versus the corruption inherent in civilization.
However, Billy Budd may be like Adam but he is not wholly without blemish. He is after all living in a world that according to Christian doctrine is "fallen," and therefore cannot support perfection. Satan has a hand, whether large or small, in everything. This is shown in the fact that Billy has a speech impediment, which the narrator explicitly attributes to the malign influence of Satan. It is this defect that is instrumental in bringing about Billy's tragic fate.
In chapter 1, Melville makes use of the technique of foreshadowing, in which a certain image or event may hint at something that becomes more significant later on in the story. This is the incident that took place on the merchant ship, when the quarrelsome Red Whiskers took a dislike Billy for no good reason and goaded him, leading to Billy's lashing out. This is very similar to what happens later between John Claggart and Billy. Melville uses the incident to show that although Billy Budd is a gentle man, unwilling to quarrel, he can become aggressive if provoked. This makes the later incident more believable, since the reader has already seen Billy behaving in this way.