The narrator begins the story by recalling a time, in the days before steamships, when it was common to observe in port towns a group of sailors gathered around a “Handsome Sailor” type—a man who stood out from his peers by being taller, stronger, and more physically attractive. The Handsome Sailor’s peers would instinctively look up to and follow this naturally superior specimen. As an example, the narrator cites an instance in Liverpool in which he observed a male African in a plaid cap promenading proudly in the company of his fellow seamen.
At twenty-one years old, though young-looking for his age, Billy Budd exemplifies the Handsome Sailor type. He has only recently entered into the service of the British naval forces. In the summer of 1797, while returning to the British Isles on board the merchant ship Rights-of-Man, he is impressed into duty by the H.M.S. Bellipotent, a warship in need of extra sailors.
Billy is the only member of his company on the Rights-of-Man selected to change ranks by the representative of the Bellipotent, Lieutenant Ratcliffe. Without complaint, Billy accepts his reassignment, much to Ratcliffe’s satisfaction. However, this shift surprises his old company and meets with the silent disapproval of his old shipmaster, Captain Graveling.
In preparation for his departure from the Rights-of-Man, Billy goes to the lower hold to gather his gear. Meanwhile, Ratcliffe barges his way into the cabin of the Rights-of-Man and helps himself to a drink. Graveling plays the polite host, but refrains from drinking himself.
In a quiet moment, Graveling reproaches Ratcliffe for stealing Billy from the Rights-of-Man. After eliciting a meager apology, Graveling proceeds to lament his loss, recounting the tale of Billy’s days on board the Rights-of-Man. He recalls Billy’s arrival amidst a quarreling crew, the rapid rise of his popularity and authority, and his swift and judicious use of force at necessary moments. He relates a story in which a sailor referred to as “the Red Whiskers,” the only member of the crew who disliked Billy, tried to bully the young sailor. When the Red Whiskers punched Billy, Billy responded with a forceful blow of his own. To the surprise of all, Billy’s violent response actually pacified the Red Whiskers’ hatred for Billy, turning that hatred to love. Graveling details the love felt by all for Billy the peacekeeper and dreads the encroaching discord that will doubtlessly return to the Rights-of-Man upon Billy’s departure.
Ratcliffe delivers the tongue-in-cheek reply, “Blessed are the peacekeepers, especially the fighting peacekeepers.” Then he gestures toward the cannons on board the Bellipotent to illustrate his idea of what a peacekeeper is. He reassures Graveling that despite the hardship of his immediate loss, he should remember that the king would doubtless approve of such selfless compliance with the needs of the empire. Calling out to Billy on deck, Ratcliffe tells him to slim down his possessions from a large box to a smaller bag.