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Billy Budd, Sailor | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Billy Budd, Sailor | Chapters 3–5 | Summary



Chapter 3

This chapter describes the mutinies that began among sailors on British naval vessels. In April of that year sailors in Spithead, England, created a "commotion" or action in protest of their treatment on board ship. In May the Nore mutiny, also called "the Great Mutiny," occurred. The narrator describes it as highly "menacing" to England, like a "strike in the fire-brigade would be to London threatened by general arson." It was, the narrator says, "an unbounded revolt." Yet the narrator explains the mutiny is little known because the British did not want to broadcast information about such widespread discontent.

The Spithead mutiny was put down after the British made "concessions" to the leaders of the revolt, especially regarding "glaring abuses" in the treatment of sailors. The Nore mutiny was an "insurrection" on a larger scale the authorities had to counter more "aggressively." The narrator goes on to say that after the Nore mutiny was finally put down, some of the sailors involved in it went on to fight for king and country at the battles of the Nile and at Trafalgar. Both were acclaimed British victories over the French and are viewed by the British as "unmatched in human annals" of naval prowess.

Chapter 4

The narrator devotes this chapter to a digression about the advances in maritime warfare and the qualities that make a great naval commander. He first describes the earliest inventions in warfare, such as gunpowder and swords, and the "gallant" knights who used these weapons. He then compares the rather decrepit ship, the Victory, used by Admiral Nelson in his earlier sea battles, to the Monitors and the even newer ironclad ships of his time.

From here the narrator moves on to argue that the star embedded in Admiral Nelson's ship, the Victory, marking the spot where he died, is a warranted tribute to the man. He disagrees with those who aver that Nelson should have retreated from the battle at Trafalgar and thus saved himself and his ship, which was shipwrecked. Rather the narrator insists that "personal prudence" is not the foremost quality of a great ship's captain. Instead the most important "special virtue" a commander can have is "love of glory ... [that impels] an honest heart-felt sense of duty." This is the quality that Nelson possessed and is why he is so honored—even above Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (1815). Nelson, he states, transformed his sense of his own greatness into "shining deeds." And this transformation is to be celebrated.

Chapter 5

The narrator says that although the Nore mutiny was put down, some of the sailors' major grievances were not redressed. Although the material things provided to the sailors were somewhat improved, the major complaint surrounding impressment was not addressed. The British navy relied heavily on impressment to man its ships, so that practice was not ended.

The continuation of impressment left a lingering discontent among sailors. For this reason, ships' commanders were always wary of a resurgence of revolt. And some "sporadic" uprisings did occur. The narrator describes how Rear Admiral Nelson was charged with subduing a real threat of mutiny among sailors on a ship that had been involved in the Nore mutiny.

The reality was that new mutinies simmered just under the surface aboard any naval vessel. This led to justifiable anxiety—even paranoia—among ships' commanders. To prevent a recurrence of mutiny when a ship was at sea more intense "vigilance" was used both to detect any sign of discontent and to prevent the sailors from plotting a revolt.


The motif of mutiny dominates these chapters. In Chapter 3 the narrator references the Spithead and Nore mutinies. The Spithead mutiny began in April 1797 among sailors on ships docked at Spithead near the southern English city of Portsmouth. The mutiny ended via negotiation, and British navy granted most of their demands. These included improvements in food and other provisions, an increase in sailor's pay after 100 years of static wages, better medical treatment, and less flogging as a punishment for even minor rule infractions. Fifty-nine of the most vicious ship commanders were relieved of their duty. Only the demand to stop impressment was not granted. All sailors who took part in the Spithead mutiny were officially pardoned by the Royal Navy.

The Nore mutiny was larger and harder for the navy to contain. It began at the Nore anchorage in the estuary of the Thames River in May 1797. The demands of the Nore mutineers went way beyond those at Spithead. Leaders of the Nore mutiny not only demanded better living and working conditions but also wanted assurances they would be pardoned. They even went so far as to demand that the king dissolve Parliament and sign a peace treaty with France. These last two demands outraged the navy and of course were not conceded. In response the mutineers set up a blockade on the River Thames in an attempt to prevent ships from entering or leaving London. The mutineers were not entirely successful, so some river trade continued. Some mutineers wanted to sail the ships they occupied to France to join the revolution, but this plan backfired because it alienated many mutinous sailors who were still loyal to England. Eventually the Royal Navy refused to allow food to be brought on board the mutineers' ships and the mutiny ended. There were no pardons for the leaders of the Nore mutiny. Some were hanged, while others were flogged, sent to prison, or transported to Australia.

The anxiety and paranoia arising from these mutinies was fueled by the very real fear the British had of the violent revolution underway in France. The French Revolution's call for "liberty, fraternity, and equality" undermined the class-ridden authoritarianism of Britain and especially the navy. The Nore mutineers' plans to sail to France reinforced British fears that the French Revolution might be imported to Britain.

The digression about the mutinies sheds light on what might be deemed Captain Vere's overreaction to the charges made against Billy Budd. To prevent a mutiny on his ship, Vere had to be extremely "vigilant" regarding his sailors' behavior and attitudes. The reader is told that "danger was apprehended from the temper of the men," so Vere's reaction to the accusation made against Budd might arise from a misapprehension of Budd's temper—yet one arising from Vere's understandable paranoia about a mutiny that could arise "at short notice."

When the narrator praises Admiral Nelson for channeling his self-regard into "shining deeds," he may in a way be praising Captain Vere's decisive action in the case of Billy Budd later in the story. The narrator also states that "prudence" is a less important quality for a ship's commander than decisive action, perhaps akin to the action taken by Captain Vere against Billy Budd. It's possible that the narrator sees Vere as heroic in his own way as Nelson was in his.

The theme of loyalty is also important here. The Nore mutiny failed in part because a fairly large number of mutineers remained loyal to king and country. They opposed sailing their ships to France to join the revolution there. Not only were these mutineers loyal to England, they were proud of its great naval victories. Pride turned them against the mutiny and back toward doing their duty to their country.

Captain Vere's sense of duty and his loyalty to the British navy were also enflamed by the threat of mutiny. The Royal Navy tried to keep news of the mutinies out of public view. Vere was likely loyal to the reputation of the navy and wanted to prevent another mutiny (on his ship) from further sullying that reputation. He felt he was doing his duty by being overly paranoid about the possibility of mutiny aboard the Bellipotent. It is implied Vere's later actions toward Billy Budd were spurred by his commitment to duty and loyalty.

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