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Chapter 3 and 4

Chapter 3

Melville explains the historical context of the story he is about to tell. It was the summer of 1797 when Billy Budd became enlisted into the Bellipotent. In the months prior to the summer, the British navy suffered from two mutinies at Spithead and Nore - the second being so serious as to be called the "Great Mutiny." In most accounts of British naval history, however, these events are largely ignored because the British historians wish to emphasize the high points of the history, not the low. Indeed, the achievements of the British navy are magnificent, particularly the victories of Admiral Horatio Nelson in the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where he secured once and for all Britain's undisputed mastery of the seas. But how the British navy suppressed the thousands of mutineers in 1797 and then went on to defeat the French in 1798 followed by all the competing naval powers by 1805 is worth examining in greater detail. This story offers some insight into that question.

Chapter 4
Melville pays his tribute to Admiral Nelson, a man he respects not only for his accomplishments in life but also for the glorious way he died. Before the introduction of gunpowder changed warfare completely, European wars were fought and won by brave knights with swords. In Melville's lifetime, naval warfare was undergoing a similarly radical shift from beautiful wooden battleships to ugly ironclads, which made ships of wooden walls obsolete. The great admirals who led their fleets of wooden battleships into war fought with knightly valor and gallantry. At the Battle of Trafalgar, in which Nelson was shot and killed, he was dressed in his uniform with all his bright military decorations and he stood in plain view of the enemy. People may criticize this act as foolhardy and vain, but Melville would rather have us believe that chivalric codes governed his actions in combat. He was certainly not a reckless man by nature, which the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 can attest to - he painstakingly mapped out the treacherous path safely to lead his fleet to victory in the battle against the Danes. But in the moments before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson felt compelled to write his last will and testament and to dress in his full uniform. It was as if he somehow knew beforehand that he would die while achieving everlasting victory in the same battle; it's a poetic ending that make great epics seem even more heroic because Nelson's story lends them the credibility that something so grand could actually happen.

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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