Summary and Analysis
Among the petty officers on the ship is John Claggart, the master-at-arms, about whom rumors fly concerning his mysterious background, trace of a foreign accent, and reasons for seeking sanctuary in the King's Navy.
On the day following his impressment, Billy Budd observes the flogging of a young sailor who caused problems with the ship's maneuvers by being away from his post. Billy resolves to perform his duties well and give no cause for even verbal reprimand. Nevertheless, he finds himself getting into occasional, small difficulties over his bag and hammock. Perplexed, he tells his troubles to the Dansker, a veteran sailor who obviously likes him. The old man tersely replies that Jemmy Legs (meaning the master-at-arms) is "down on him." Astonished, Billy protests that Claggart always addresses him pleasantly. To this, the old man replies that Claggart is really masking his dislike for Billy.
The day after their discussion, a roll of the ship causes Billy to spill soup on the freshly scrubbed deck just as Claggart passes by. Claggart steps over the spill without comment, then notices the identity of the person who caused the accident. Claggart's expression changes. He taps Billy lightly with his cane, remarks on Billy's little "trick," and comments sardonically about Bill's good looks. Claggart's expression is so alarmingly hostile that he terrorizes a drummer-boy who walks into his path. He moves on, leaving Billy bewildered as he tries to reconcile Claggart's overt friendliness with the Dansker's ominous warning.
These chapters introduce John Claggart, the thirty-five-year-old master-at-arms who receives more detailed attention in subsequent chapters. One of the most intriguing characters in the book, Claggart has attracted wide attention from critics, who present various interpretations of his role in the unfolding drama. Melville emphasizes that, because of the difficulties England was facing, such men as Claggart were fair game for recruiters, who were desperate for warm bodies to staff England's naval vessels, even if such recruits were malcontents or criminals.
Claggart's role as a military policeman aboard the man-of-war does not endear him to the crew. His abrupt advancement to this position from a lower one results from intelligence, seriousness of purpose, and respect for superiors. Melville also notes Claggart's sneakiness "manifested on a singular occasion," but he never explains the occasion.
Another important character appears in these passages. The old Dansker, an experienced sailor who at first doubts Billy's innocence, later wonders at the incongruity of so naive a man aboard the vessel. Billy seeks out the old Dansker as an intuitive sage who can penetrate the puzzlement presented by Claggart's inexplicable behavior.
Experienced sailor that he is, the old Dansker sees through Claggart; in his austere way, he is drawn to Billy. The Dansker is one of the most important crew members and, along with them, functions as a chorus to comment on and interpret the action. Through the Dansker's wise assessment of Claggart, we learn that Billy has become the object of Claggart's hatred.
warrant officers naval officers of the middle rank, between commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers, who rose from the lowest rank.
master-at-arms chief policeman and peacekeeper on a naval vessel.
niter and sulphur the ingredients in gunpowder.
Tecumseh a Shawnee chief.
phrenologically associated with more than average intellect The pseudo-science of phrenology claims to be able to assess a person's capabilities by analyzing the shape and size of the head.
was keeping incog was keeping his past a secret.
chevalier adventurer, or con man.
as much in sanctuary . . . under the altar During the Middle Ages, a person pursued by law enforcement officers could escape capture by taking refuge in a church, convent, or monastery.
harpies monsters from Greek mythology with faces and bodies of women and the wings and claws of birds.
the fallen Bastille The capture of the famous Paris fortress-prison signaled the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.
Camoëns' Spirit of the Cape an allusion to Camoëns' Lusiad, the Portuguese epic describing the exploits of Vasco de Gama. In one interlude, the giant Adamastor is transformed into a vast rock, which represents the spirit of the Cape of Good Hope.
quidnuncs gossips or busybodies; literally, "what now" in Latin.
stun-sails small sails set on the backside of the mast during light winds.
afterguardsman a watchman in the stern of the ship.
that great spar a pole used as a mast.
an old Dansker long anglicized in the service a Dane who has been in the navy so long that he seems English.
Haden's etching a work of art by Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818–1910).
Jemmy Legs a slang term for any master-at-arms.
Chiron . . . his young Achilles an allusion to the learned centaur in Greek mythology who tutored Achilles.
official rattan a flexible cane used as a symbol of office and as a disciplinary weapon.