The narrator introduces Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, an officer of aristocratic lineage. He is about forty years old. Though he is a highly distinguished and capable officer, there is nothing flashy about Captain Vere. He does not flaunt his nautical profession when he is onshore, and on ship he does not flaunt his authority or his rank. Beneath his modest exterior, however, he is a highly resolute man. Though practical enough when the situation calls for it, he has a tendency to lapse into a dreamy and abstracted state when not in action. He acquired the nickname “Starry Vere” after his cousin greeted him with that title upon his homecoming. The name comes from a poem by Andrew Marvell, where it refers to a military leader renowned as a severe disciplinarian.
The narrator expands upon his initial introduction of Captain Vere. A veteran of the sea, Vere has acquired certain habits over time, including a devotion to the reading of biography, history, and unconventional, common sense philosophers such as Montaigne. His penchant for reading gives him a bookish, slightly pedantic demeanor that sometimes alienates him from his fellow officers.
The narrator attempts the difficult task of describing John Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms, who functions as a sort of police captain on the vessel. In the midst of this description, the narrator explains some of the unsavory means that were employed to recruit men to ships at that time. He considers the fact that suspects and convicted criminals make up a significant portion of any given crew, especially in a time of war. While speculation abounds that Claggart himself may be a product of the prison system, the narrator dismisses this talk as idle guesswork.
“Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs is down on you.”
From the foretop, Billy has a bird’s-eye view of the activity on the decks below. On the day after his arrival on board the Bellipotent, he witnesses a formal gangway punishment for the first time. After failing to show up at his assigned post, a novice suffers several lashes on his bare back, resulting in a grid of bloody welts. This incident makes a significant impression on Billy, who resolves to perform his duties diligently so as to avoid a similar beating. Nevertheless, he occasionally finds himself being censured for one minor infraction or another and feels a vague sense of threat directed toward him from his superiors.
Concerned about his predicament, Billy seeks out the Dansker, an elderly Danish mastman and seasoned veteran of the high seas. Finding him off duty on the gun deck, Billy proceeds to reveal his troubles to the Dansker, who listens attentively. After Billy finishes his tale, the Dansker volunteers his impression that Claggart, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the ship, dislikes Billy. Billy is left to puzzle over the possibility that he has fallen out of favor with Claggart, since Billy feels Claggart has spoken of him only in positive terms thus far.
The next day at lunch, Billy accidentally spills his soup on the newly scrubbed deck of the mess hall when the ship lurches. In passing, Claggart notices the accident and remarks on the handsome effect of the spill and its maker. The comment elicits a chorus of perfunctory laughter from the crew, and Billy, unable to see the sour grimace on Claggart’s face when he made the comment, takes the incident as proof of Claggart’s esteem for him. As Claggart continues on his way, he inadvertently bumps into a drummer boy, whom he reproves for his carelessness.