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Chapter 1

In the not too distant past, there was a type of man called the "Handsome Sailor." Shipmates of the Handsome Sailor would treat him as if he were royalty by walking around him in a protective circle wherever he went on shore. He was strong and athletic, and his shipmates would often tell stories of his courageous accomplishments. He also had a strong sense of morals, and it was those three characteristics - strength, beauty, and integrity - that made the Handsome Sailor a natural born leader among equals. The focus of this story is a young man who fits this type, Billy Budd.
In the last decade of the eighteenth century, the British navy often put their warships to sea without a full crew. As a result, the officers aboard these warships felt compelled to impress - unlawfully seize - sailors from smaller, defenseless ships that they passed by on the sea. On one of these occasions, the warship H.M.S. Bellipotent stopped an English merchant vessel, named the Rights-of-Man, and Lieutenant Ratcliffe came aboard the Rights to inspect the crew. Even before Ratcliffe looked over the entire crew, he declared that he wanted to enlist Billy Budd and him only. Captain Graveling, the shipmaster of the Rights, was the type of man about whom everyone agrees is a "respectable man." On the other hand, Lieutenant Ratcliffe, although he was a dutiful officer, was an alcoholic and he had no qualms about taking liquor freely from Captain Graveling's spirit locker. Captain Graveling chose not to complain about the alcohol and instead tried to explain to Ratcliffe that he could not afford to lose Billy Budd.
Graveling describes to Ratcliffe that his crew aboard the Rights fought all day before he recruited Billy Budd. For some unexplained reason (since he never said or did anything in particular) everyone loved Billy Budd and ceased their bickering - all except one. Red Whiskers was the biggest and shaggiest of the crew, and he was jealous of the way everyone treated Billy. Red Whiskers continually challenged Billy to fight, but Billy always tried to calm him down in a pleasant way. One day in front of the others, Red Whiskers punched Billy under the ribs. Instinctively, Billy Budd punched back and knocked him out in less than half a minute. Afterwards, Red Whiskers respected and loved Billy as much as everyone else, and the ship has been one big happy family ever since. Graveling knows that his ship will become a boatload of quarrels if Billy leaves, and he begs Ratcliffe not to take him. To Ratcliffe, this story succeeds in convincing him that he has made the right choice in Billy Budd, and Ratcliffe refuses to change his mind.
Billy Budd, when he was impressed to the Bellipotent, was aged twenty-one, and he knew nothing of the accepted behavior for a sailor in the British navy. He packed his belongings in a box, but Ratcliffe told him that if he didn't want his belongings to be mistaken for ammunition, he'd better pack them in a bag. Then after Ratcliffe and Billy boarded a rowboat that would take them to the warship, he stood up to wave good-bye to his shipmates on the Rights. Ratcliffe immediately barked at him to sit down. Billy Budd didn't know that he wasn't supposed to do that, nor was he aware that doing so would be read as disrespect to his commanding officer. (Truth be told, Ratcliffe actually admired Billy for waving good-bye to his friends.) Nothing really fazed Billy, and he accepted his new position as foretopman on the Bellipotent with a happy-go-lucky attitude. While other impressed members of the crew had homes and families to take care of, Billy Budd had no responsibilities except for himself and so he looked forward to the adventures that this new voyage promised.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3 and 4
Chapter 5 and 6
Chapter 7 and 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10 and 11
Chapter 12 and 13
Chapter 14 and 15
Chapter 16 and 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19 and 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22 and 23
Chapter 24 and 25
Chapter 26 and 27
Chapter 28, 29, and 30


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