Billy Budd: Novel Summary: Chapters 3-5
These chapters interrupt the main narrative but give important background information about events that happened in the British Navy only a few months before the story of Billy Budd takes place.
The first event was an outbreak of disorder in the British Navy at Spithead, off the south of England, in April, 1797. The sailors' rebellion was put down, and concessions were made by the authorities to address their grievances.
Then came a much more serious event, the Nore mutiny, known as the "Great Mutiny." It occurred at Nore, at the mouth of the River Thames, in May, 1797, and involved thousands of sailors. The causes were twofold: the failure of the British Navy to address the grievances of the ordinary sailors, and the continuing revolutionary situation in France, which was fanning the flames of discontent in England. The Nore mutiny was extremely serious since Britain was the world's leading naval power, and relied on its prowess on the seas. The mutiny was suppressed, and many of the mutineers went on to perform admirable in naval battles over the next decade.
Chapter 5 is a digression in which the narrator looks back, from his own time in the late nineteenth century, at the changing nature of sea warfare. He is especially interested in the career of Lord Nelson, the British admiral who defeated the French near the mouth of the Nile in 1798, and then died during his victory over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The narrator dismisses certain historians who claim that Nelson was foolhardy and would have survived Trafalgar had he curbed his unnecessary bravado. According to the narrator, Nelson's victory was a magnificent one and his death a glorious one.
In Chapter 5, the narrator points out that although some of the grievances that led to the two mutinies were addressed, others continued. One of the continuing problems was the practice of "impressment," the forcing of men into naval service. The narrator argues, however, that such a practice was necessary at the time in order to man the fleet.
But because of lingering discontent amongst the men, the fear of mutiny remained, even after the Nore Mutiny was put down. Sometimes in a naval battle, the lieutenants would stand with drawn swords behind the men who worked the guns, just to ensure that they did their duty.
The information given in these chapters is important because it shows the kind of atmosphere that prevailed on the ships of the British Navy at the end of the eighteenth century, on one of which was Billy Budd. The fear of mutiny will later emerge as a significant element in the unfolding tragedy of the "Handsome Sailor."
The narrator's descriptions of the two mutinies are historically accurate, although he gives only a few details. The first mutiny, at Spithead, involved sixteen ships. The men refused to sail, demanding better pay and conditions, and better treatment in general. The mutiny was a peaceful, orderly affair, and the authorities responded with leniency. Some abusive officers were removed, and the demands of the mutineers were for the most part met. The mutineers were also pardoned.
The Nore mutiny, as the narrator explains, was far more serious. The mutineers made more far-reaching demands than those that had been made at Spithead, including demands for more shore leave and changes to the Articles of War. They attempted to enforce their demands by blockading the river Thames. This time the authorities reacted more harshly. The leading mutineers were court-martialed and hanged from the yardarm of HMS Sandwich. Others were imprisoned or flogged.