In 1797, when the novel takes place, there were uprisings in the British navy, first at Spithead in April, then at the Nore in May. This latter episode was called the Great Mutiny. In fairness it must be said that many of the sailors who rebelled served heroically later under Nelson at the Nile and at Trafalgar.
The Bellipotent sails for the Mediterranean in these difficult times. Many of the abuses have been rectified, but impressment still continues, and every officer in the fleet watches for signs of discontent and trouble. Nelson, the greatest naval hero of his time, has great personal influence over the men, but in battle some officers still stand over the gunners with drawn swords.
This section demonstrates the painfully obtuse prose which some critics dislike in Melville. Yet, every tedious detail here and elsewhere in Billy Budd leads to a fuller understanding of the plot. In the early chapters, Melville explains current events and foreshadows those to come. Because the spirit of mutiny is in the air, the conscientious and dedicated captain, while dealing with the affairs aboard his ship, keeps himself alert to possible rebellion.
Melville not only gives an accolade to Nelson, whom he obviously admires, but at the same time prepares for an eventual comparison of this great naval commander with Vere, the captain of the Bellipotent. Like Nelson, Captain Vere does not seek personal glory. Also like Nelson, Vere is a thoroughly trained professional. Melville creates the plot of the novel and the destinies of the characters against this emotion-charged historical setting.
seventy-four the number of guns on a medium-sized battleship.
frigates smaller, lighter warships used for reconnaissance more than heavy fighting.
Spithead a strait between the Isle of Wight and southern England near Portsmouth.
the Nore the mouth of the Thames River.
the bluejackets slang term for English sailors.
strains of Dibdin songs composed by Charles Dibdin (1745–1814).
tars a slang term for sailors.
a coronet for Nelson at the Nile . . . crowns for him at Trafalgar rewards which Nelson earned for his victories.
became obsolete with their wooden walls the refinements in cannons greatly affected the design of warships.
Benthamites Utilitarians who, like Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), believed that pleasure is a major criterion of happiness.
Wellington the famed soldier who brought about Napoleon's downfall at Waterloo.
Alfred in his funeral ode Alfred, Lord Tennyson, England's poet laureate, wrote "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington."
fustian pompous, extravagant speech.