Billy Budd, Sailor

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Billy Budd, Sailor

by Herman Melville


A short novel set aboard the HMS Bellipotent, a British ship, in 1797; completed in 1891 but unpublished until 1924.


A young man is impressed into service on a British naval ship and must face the Navy’s strict discipline and the jealous hatred of Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in New York City in 1819, Herman Melville began a career at sea when he was nineteen years old. He served first on a merchant ship and later on an American navy vessel, his experiences furnishing him with material that inspired his later fiction. Completed at age seventy-two in his final year of life, Billy Budd, Sailor (also called Billy Budd, Foretopman), reflects the author’s personal views and feelings on religion and humanity as he approached death.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

War between England and France

France erupted in revolution in July 1789. A new government came to power, conquered Belgium and several other areas of Europe, and executed France’s previous ruler, King Louis XVI, on January 21, 1793. At the outset, participants in the French Revolution set out to acquire a greater share of rights in a land that had long experienced an unequal distribution of wealth and power. Turning on French nobles with a bloody vengeance, the rebels rioted, raped, looted, and murdered in their pursuit of a government dedicated to freedom from unfair taxes and other laws they felt were prejudiced. Many English citizens, who had at first felt were some sympathy for the rebels, became alarmed at their tactics and came to fear the spread of the murderous French. Some Frenchmen, in fact, openly advocated war against the English in the hopes that the conflict would prompt a revolution similar to the one that had taken place in France.

Their wishes were granted when, on February 1, 1793, France finally declared war against England. It was a war that would last for more than twenty years, and the majority of its conflicts would be fought upon the seas. Since the English Channel separated England from France, all offensives were by necessity naval in nature. France’s continued efforts to disrupt shipments of supplies to England also contributed to the mayhem on the water. Finally, the role of Ireland in the war played a part in the widespread sea battles. For centuries England had extended its authority over Ireland, a state of affairs that the Irish resented. Hoping to take advantage of Irish anger, France planned to land in Ireland and commence an invasion of English territory from this landing point. Rough weather on the Atlantic Ocean, however, prevented a large-scale landing in Ireland, and the English were able to reinforce crucial positions during the delay. As a result, France and England continued to focus on naval power throughout the war.

Life in the King’s Navy

Along with England’s strong reliance on naval power came the need for large numbers of sailors to man the growing fleet. Service in the navy was unpleasant at best. The ships of the era were built to accommodate armaments rather than men. Some of these weapons weighed as much as three tons and took up most of the space between decks. Sailors slept above these weapons and ate in the cramped quarters that housed the cannon to which they were assigned. Unhealed ulcers and other skin diseases became common because of the lack of soap; it was not until 1808 that the British navy finally issued soap to its sailors. The damp conditions below deck, combined with the cold work above, produced rheumatism and other ailments in the sailors. Abdominal ruptures were common among those who worked with the ship’s sails, for they were often forced to lie on their stomachs across supporting poles while using both hands to complete their tasks. Worst of all, however, were the food and drink on navy ships. The sailors drank water from wooden barrels that usually became polluted with slime a couple of weeks into the voyage. Salt beef was the staple of the sailors’ diet, along with salt pork, dried biscuit, oatmeal, and cheese. Pursers, the officers responsible for purchasing the ships’ provisions, were notorious for selling the best foodstuffs and keeping only the poorest quality rations for their crews.

Impressment in England

Because of the horrible conditions on navy ships around the end of the 1700s, nearly half of all sailors during this period were impressed—enlisted into the navy against their will. The impressment agents scoured the coasts and waterways, taking into custody any man who did not possess apprenticeship papers, a foreign passport, or shipbuilding employment. The original intention was to enlist experienced seamen who had not volunteered. In 1797, after four years of war, most of the capable sailors had already been taken, and the impressment (press) gangs were grabbing anyone they could find, including criminals. As described in Billy Budd, this method of replenishing the fleet’s ranks occurred with official approval: “the London police were at liberty to capture any able-bodied suspect, any questionable fellow at large and summarily ship him to the dockyard or fleet” (Melville, Billy Budd, p. 315). As circumstances became increasingly desperate, the impressment of criminals became even more deliberate, as Melville explained in the novel: “In the case of a warship short of hands whose speedy sailing was imperative, the deficient quota... would be eked out by draughts culled direct from the jails” (Billy Budd, p. 315).

Healthy men were rarely seen in some areas where press gangs were active; they had either been previously taken or were being hidden by members of the community. Press gangs also roamed the high seas in search of potential sailors. Even privateers, privately owned ships that made up a crucial part of England’s naval force, were not exempt from the gangs. As seen in the case of Billy Budd’s impressment, merchant ships were regarded as acceptable hunting grounds for press gangs.

Many commanding naval officers hated impressment. Admiral Edward “Grog” Vernon, for instance, commented that “our fleets are defrauded by injustice, manned by violence, and maintained by cruelty” (Vernon in Dugan, p. 61). Still, the practice continued to be a common one.

Contrary ways of thinking

As impressment became more widespread, political criminals and radicals found themselves serving as sailors for the royal fleet. These new conscripts were attracted to ideas voiced in an English pamphlet by Thomas Paine called The Rights of Man. Written in 1791 and 1792 to defend the French Revolution, the pamphlet included a complaint against a military injustice of the time: “The pay of the army, the navy, and all of the revenue officers, is about the same now as it was about a hundred years ago, when the taxes were not above a tenth part of what they are at present” (Paine in Dugan, p. 63). This information almost certainly raised the sympathies of the military men who read Paine’s words.

Melville uses Rights-of-Man as the name of the merchant ship from which Billy is seized, and the narrator of the novel comments that this ship’s captain “was a staunch admirer of Thomas Paine” (Billy Budd, p. 297). In contrast, the captain of the Bellipotent, the ship to which Billy is taken, champions the rights of the state above the rights of man. The story thus echoes a controversy that was a subject of significant debate at the time. On the one side were thinkers like Paine, who believed that the rights of the individual came first; on the other were followers of another English writer, Edmund Burke, who argued that the rights of the individual must be sacrificed in the interest of the state. Burke held that in organized society the freedom of the individual needed to be given up in trust to leaders of the government so that they could preserve the liberty of all its citizens.


A strict set of regulations governed the behavior of the sailors, and punishments were much harsher for naval offenses than they were in civilian law. The navy demanded a slavish type of obedience from the sailors it employed. In the navy’s eyes, a sailor was a self-declared slave to the high notion of patriotism, a small part of a huge operation dedicated to protecting his nation’s citizens. If he failed to acknowledge this and play by the rules, he risked not only his own destruction but also the destruction of his entire nation.

This general belief led to laws and punishments designed to achieve complete discipline on board a vessel. After 1790 the main forms of punishment meted out were death or flogging with a cat-o’-nine tails—a whip of nine knotted cords connected to a handle. In 1812 the Duke of York limited the number of lashes that could be administered at any single whipping to three hundred, but a man could still receive them for even a minor offense.

Impressment and the War of 1812

Following the American Revolution in the late 1700s, hostile feelings between the United States and England persisted. Because of the harsh conditions on British ships during the war against France, many Englishmen deserted to positions on American ships. British navy ships began searching for deserters among American crews in the hopes of recapturing them for service in the war against France. In the process, British ships impressed many sailors who had left England years earlier and become American citizens. British seamen seemed to ignore the outcome of the American Revolution, acting as if the Americans were not independent. Some British navy captains, desperate for men, took many American citizens who were not even former British subjects. This violation of Americans’ rights was a contributing factor in the decision of the United States to declare war against the British in 1812.

The Spithead and Nore mutinies

The years 1794 and 1797 witnessed two events that shook the British navy to its core. In 1794 a mutiny of British navymen took place at Spithead in southern England. They staged an unprecedented insurrection that proved difficult to squelch. Order was eventually restored, but three years later an even greater insurrection began with the mutiny at Nore, a theater for naval operations on the east coast of England. Although the incident at Spithead had been forgotten by naval officers, the rebellious sailors had not forgotten their demands for improvements, which had been neglected after the resolution of the initial uprising at Spithead; this resentment over the unmet demands served as the major factor in the revolt at Nore in 1797.

In Billy Budd, the narrator repeatedly refers to these two mutinies. They are regarded as symbols of a revolutionary spirit that prompts men to rise up against real abuses. Melville uses 1797, the year of the Nore Mutiny, as the setting for his novel: combined with the ongoing conflict with France, the mutiny provides the perfect background of unrest, conspiracy, and violence for his story of human cruelty and morality.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Billy Budd is a young sailor aboard a small merchant ship departing from England. The ship is boarded in a routine inspection by officers from the navy ship HMS Bellipotent, which desperately needs additional sailors. Judging Billy to be capable of the job, the officers immediately impress him into service and take him aboard the Bellipotent. Once aboard the gunship, Billy quickly becomes a favorite of the crew because of his innocent good looks and his easy, carefree nature.

Troubles begin for Billy when Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms (the navy officer responsible for maintaining order) begins to develop an uncontrollable hatred for the handsome young sailor. Claggart makes false accusations against Billy concerning his orderliness and uses every opportunity to reprimand Billy for minor infringements of discipline. Young Billy, unaware that Claggart is the manipulator of these events, actually believes that Claggart is one of his best allies on the ship. As Billy’s troubles worsen, another member of the crew approaches him and subtly invites Billy to take part in a mutiny. Billy is outraged, and his indignation proves so great that he reveals a flaw in his seemingly perfect composure. He stutters uncontrollably, unable to form a single word in response to the mutinous sailor’s proposition.

Shortly after this affair, Claggart tells Captain Vere, the commander of the ship, that he believes Billy is involved in a plot to foment a mutiny aboard the Bellipotent. Although he does not know Billy personally, Captain Vere is flabbergasted to think that the likable young sailor could

have any part in such a plan. Vere summons Billy to his cabin, where Claggart makes the accusation to Billy’s face. Shocked and outraged, Billy is rendered absolutely speechless. He desperately strives to speak but can barely stutter a single syllable. Finally, he expresses himself the only way he can—by unleashing a powerful blow to Claggart’s head. Claggart crumples to the cabin floor and dies from the awesome blow, which shocks Captain Vere.

The captain realizes that Billy is innocent of plotting mutiny, but the issue now at hand is Billy’s guilt in killing Claggart. Vere, who witnessed the killing with his own eyes, feels obligated to charge Billy with murder, and under the provisions of the naval code, this charge means the death penalty for Billy. Despite his desire to save Billy, Vere cannot bend the rules of the sea. Billy understands this and his final words as he is about to hang from the yardarm are, “God bless Captain Vere!” (Billy Budd, p. 375).

Vere later receives a deathly wound in a sea battle. The Captain utters Billy Budd’s name with his last breath. Ending the novel are two accounts of the young sailor’s death, a navy news report that wrongly describes Budd as the ringleader of a mutiny and a poem that pictures him as a glib-speaking innocent.

From religion to politics in Billy Budd

Herman Melville was very familiar with the popular epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton (also covered in Literature and Its Times), which details the fall of man according to the Christian faith. In his novel, Melville seems to be sharing his own personal version of this fall in a way that reveals his views on humanity and religion in the last year of his life. He compares Billy to an innocent, a character like Adam or Jesus; Claggart to Satan; and Captain Vere to a Godlike father who sits in judgment over the innocent and the guilty.

The novel establishes Billy’s innocent nature early in a description of Billy aboard the Rights-of-Man. According to its captain, Billy’s presence was enough to pacify the rough crew, which had been unmanageable before his arrival. He tells the officer from the Bellipotent, “But Billy came; and it was like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy... a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones” (Billy Budd, p. 295). Later, however, the innocent Billy commits murder and is found guilty of the crime. In a similar reversal of guilt and innocence, the villain Claggart tells the captain that Billy is involved in a mutiny. Claggart is clearly guilty of lying, yet the court-martial regards the dead Claggart as an innocent victim of Billy’s wrath. As the narrator notes, “innocence and guilt personified in Claggart and Budd in effect changed places” (Billy Budd, p. 354).

In Melville’s view, the fault seems to lie neither in Claggart nor in Billy Budd but rather in the human makeup. Billy has a physical defect, a stutter, that leads to his committing murder. Claggart is fundamentally flawed as well. “In [Claggart],” notes the narrator, “was the mania of an evil nature... born with him and innate” (Billy Budd, p. 326). Both become victims of their own flaws, and Melville seems to hold God responsible for these blemishes. The Almighty, according to this view, created man as a flawed creature. Those flaws, be it a stutter or an evil nature, cause him to sin. Earlier in the 1800s, the English writer Percy Shelley had declared that “God made man such as he is, and then damned him for being so”; similarly Billy Budd suggests that by the end of his life Melville believed that man’s fault was God’s fault (Thompson, p. 361).

The question of innocence or guilt moves from the personal to the social level when Captain Vere debates the case with three other judges at the impromptu naval court. The murderer, protests one of the three, did not intend mutiny or homicide, so the death penalty seems unwarranted. In reply, Captain Vere argues that death is the only alternative if they are to maintain discipline on the ship. Any leniency would encourage mutiny and wild behavior among the rest of the crew, who, if given enough rein, might act as wildly as the king-killing populace of France. In fact, Vere argues, whether or not Billy Budd intended to commit murder or to engage in a mutiny is of little consequence. It is, says Vere, the effect of his perceived action on the crew that matters. Building on the belief that man is born with some mark of Satan in him and that society must restrain human nature, Vere places the law above individual rights. Billy Budd’s life, he suggests, must be sacrificed, as Christ’s was, for the greater good. Such reasoning echoes the logic of the writer Edmund Burke, who placed social order above individual rights.

The court scene in Melville’s story thus opens the door to questions surrounding natural rights and their validity in the face of state laws designed to keep society whole. As Captain Vere argues for the death penalty, the three other judges move restlessly in their seats, “agitated by the... spontaneous conflict within” (Billy Budd, p. 362).

Melville himself may have been agitated, not only over such troubling social questions but also over a personal question of his own guilt or innocence in someone’s death. A stern and difficult father, Melville had a son, Malcolm, who fourteen years earlier had shot himself to death in his own room with a pistol. Melville discovered his son’s body after forcing open the door to the room. It has been suggested that in Melville’s final year this memory became especially troublesome for the author. Before the climax of the novel, Captain Vere expresses fatherly regard toward Billy Budd. When Billy, on his way to his death, cries “God bless Captain Vere,” he absolves the captain of guilt for the death. Billy holds him blameless, understanding that the captain is a victim of man’s naval laws and God’s designs. On a social level, this seems to confirm the captain’s argument to the court that the laws of his society must take precedence over an individual’s basic rights. On a personal level, at least one authority has drawn a parallel between this episode and Melville’s own feelings of guilt in his son’s suicide (Bush in Introduction to Billy Budd, p. xii).


In creating his sea stories, Melville typically referred to sources such as William James’s The Naval History of Great Britain and Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson, as well as other naval histories. But more interesting than texts from which he gleaned secondary information are Melville’s personal sources for Billy Budd.

Melville draws heavily on his own experiences at sea, as he had in his novel White Jacket, which explored the abuses of seamen in the U.S. navy. He seems to have been inspired partly by a desire to capture in fiction his fond memories of Captain Jack Chase, under whom Melville had served during his stint on the United States, an American navy ship. Melville once wrote concerning the captain, “wherever you may be rolling over the blue waters, dear Jack, take my best love along with you” (Melville in Weaver, p. xx). Melville dedicated Billy Budd to Jack Chase and seems to have embodied Chase’s appealing qualities in the character of Captain Vere. Captain Vere becomes a father figure to Billy Budd, a reflection perhaps of how Melville, who lost his own father at an early age, perceived Captain Chase.

Melville’s plot may have also been inspired in part by the Somers affair, in which three young navy men—Elisha Small, Philip Spencer, and Samuel Cromwell—were hung when rumors implicated them in a mutiny. The 1842 incident raised many questions about the rights of both captains and common sailors. Forty-six years later, in June 1888, the American Magazine brought the episode back into the public limelight by publishing an article by Lieutenant H. D. Smith on “The Mutiny on the Somers.” It was at this point that Melville began gathering information to write Billy Budd. In June 1889, Cosmopolitan Magazine ran another article on the Somers affair entitled “The Murder of Philip Spencer.” Melville was making revisions on Billy Budd at the time, a task that would keep him busy until April 1891.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Guert Gansevoort and the Somers affair

On December 14, 1842, the United States brig USS Somers under Commander Alexander Mackenzie returned home to New York after cruising the waters off North Africa. With the arrival of the ship came the news that some men had been hung on board after being charged with mutiny. Just as in Claggart’s charges against Billy Budd, there had been no overt act of mutiny, only accusations that the men had been plotting. One of the alleged mutineers was Philip Spencer, the son of the American secretary of war. Spencer had allegedly held private meetings with another member of the crew named Wales. According to Wales, Spencer was plotting to take possession of the ship by murdering the officers at night and intimidating the rest of the crew into submission. Supposedly, once in control of the brig, Spencer intended to turn pirate and rob defenseless ships in the Atlantic Ocean. Spencer had persuaded about twenty members of the crew to join him in his plan, according to Wales. Wales told the ship’s first lieutenant of the plot, who then informed Captain Mackenzie, who immediately placed Spencer under arrest. The following morning, missing equipment seemed to confirm the captain’s fears that unrest and mutiny were brewing in the crew. Several other men were arrested after being linked to the plot through papers found in Spencer’s possession, and on December 1, 1842, Spencer and two other men were hanged from the ship’s yardarm. The two other victims were Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small, a man who was well-loved by the crew; sailors on board exclaimed “God bless the flag!” when he was hanged.

The resemblance of this case to the plot in Melville’s Billy Budd is obvious; what makes the connection even more intriguing is that Melville’s cousin served on the court that convicted the “mutineers.” Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort, Melville’s cousin, was seven years Melville’s senior, but despite this age difference the two had spend a great deal of time together as youths, and though this closeness did not continue throughout adulthood, the relationship remained an important one. At the time of the incident, Melville was just enlisting on the United States, a navy ship sailing out of Honolulu. He undoubtedly would have heard of the episode. Many scholars believe that he may have heard a full account of it from Gansevoort himself. Certainly he knew of his family’s belief that God approved of his cousin’s role in sentencing the three men to death. Melville apparently did not share their certainty.

The critics’ response to Billy Budd

At the time of his death in 1891, Herman Melville was a little-known author whose works remained unappreciated. The greatness of his works was not recognized until more than three decades after his death, when the publication of Raymond Weaver’s biography, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, renewed interest in his writings. In 1924, in the midst of this renewed interest, Billy Budd was finally published, and its publication generated a flurry of critical response. One critic of the period, Lewis Mumford, saw a greater depth in Billy Budd than in Melville’s earlier works. According to Mumford, “Billy Budd is... the story of the world, the spirit, and the devil.... Good and evil exist in the nature of things, each forever itself, each doomed to war with the other. These are the fundamental ambiguities of life” (Mumford in Harris, p. 345).

For More Information

Dugan, James. The Great Mutiny. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965.

Harris, Laurie Lanzen, ed. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.

Horsman, Reginald. The Causes of the War of 1812. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962.

Howard, Leon. Herman Melville, A Biography. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.

McFarland, Philip. Sea Dangers: The Affair of the Somers. New York: Schocken, 1985.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and Other Stories. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Thompson, Lawrance. Melville’s Quarrel with God. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952.

Weaver, Raymond. Shorter Novels of Herman Melville. New York: H. Liverwright, 1928.