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In these chapters, the narrator digresses from Billy’s story. In Chapter 3, he discusses two major mutinies that occurred in the ranks of the British navy during the spring of 1797, the year in which Billy Budd takes place. The Great Mutiny at Nore, a sandbank in the Thames estuary that was the primary site of anchorage for the British fleet, rocked the British navy to its core. This mutiny was, according to the narrator, more menacing to the British Empire than all of the propaganda of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s armies combined. Britain’s navy was, after all, the right arm of the one free European power that continued to hold out in the face of Napoleon’s conquest of the Continent. The “reasonable discontent” of the sailors over shoddy rations, impressment, and poor pay was ignited into an inferno by the anti-authoritarian philosophy spouted in France. But the narrator insists that rebellion against authority is not truly in the nature of British sailors, and that the mutinies were like temporary fevers that the healthy British navy soon shrugged off. Of the thousands of men who participated in the mutiny at Nore, many of them gloriously absolved themselves by their heroism at Trafalgar, where the French were defeated.
The narrator digresses further into a laudatory discussion of Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, the national hero who commanded the British fleet at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. He notes that Nelson and his ship, the Victory, represent the last vestiges of a more poetic age, before the ugly—albeit efficient and powerful—ironclad warships of the present took over. Throughout the chapter, the narrator argues that Nelson’s flashy heroism and love of glory were superior to the more technologically efficient present-day methods of war. For instance, whereas some people might be inclined to fault Nelson for sentimentally decorating himself with all of his medals and insignia before going into battle, thus making himself an easy target for the sharpshooter who killed him at Trafalgar, the narrator insists that a thirst for glory is the most important trait of a leader, and that Nelson’s personal style is part of what makes him the most famous naval commander ever.
The narrator returns to a discussion of the mutinies of 1797. Although some of the mutinous sailors’ demands were met, the navy could not afford to give up the practice of impressment, so naval authorities had good reason to fear that mutiny could flare up again at any time. As a result, the admiral in command of the fleet in 1797 sent Nelson, who was then a rear admiral, to command one of the ships that had recently mutinied, so that his heroic personality would galvanize the men back into loyalty.
Although Chapters 3–5 represent a departure from Billy Budd’s story, they are very important in establishing the context within which the events of the novel take place. Most importantly, the fact that Billy Budd is set only months after the two major rebellions of 1797 would lead us to expect an atmosphere of fear to the point of paranoia on the part of the officers of Billy’s ship—which, as we later see, is in fact the case. The Nore mutiny involved thousands of soldiers and struck at the heart of the British navy—not halfway around the world but within England’s borders. At the time, the English had been fighting for four years to quash the French Revolution, which represented the overthrow of the monarchy and the established social order. Britain relied upon its navy to defend itself against the Revolution spreading to its shores. The widespread mutiny in the ranks of that very navy raised the specter of a homegrown revolt that could overturn British society altogether, opening the floodgates of revolution. Although the mutinies were put down, and some of the underlying causes were addressed, the navy was not able to ameliorate discontent completely because it still had to rely upon impressment to fill its ranks. Mutiny could strike again at any time.
The fact that so many of the sailors in the navy had been involuntarily impressed into service is also important in helping us understand Billy’s story. Since they were there against their will, many of these men were dangerously disaffected, which explains in part the undercurrent of danger and hostility that we sense on board the Bellipotent. We later learn that Billy’s nemesis, Claggart, whom we have yet to meet, may even have been impressed into service from a jail, given how desperate the navy is for men.
Finally, though it may be difficult for us to immediately see the relevance of the narrator’s praise of Horatio Nelson, who is not a character in the novel, his example does bear on the story that we are going to read. Nelson’s heroism and the glory he had accrued to his name were exploited by the navy to keep down mutiny. Though Billy’s ship does not have a Horatio Nelson on board to inspire enthusiastic loyalty, Chapter 4 prepares the foundation for a comparison between Billy’s captain and Nelson. Ultimately, the events of the novel are determined as much by the personalities of the men who lead as by the policies and rules that the officers claim to follow.