Notes on Billy Budd Themes

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Billy Budd Topic Tracking: Historical Context

Historical Context 1: This story finds the British navy at a critical juncture in its development. In recent years, there have been many significant milestones in the development of the Empire. With the fall of the French monarchy and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Britain has become the eminent imperial presence not only in the Americas but also in Africa, Australia, India and the Far East. These territories stretched the British navy beyond its capacity. The complications of governing and controlling such a large empire eventually led to its decline.

Historical Context 2: The British navy begins its decline around this period in time. These mutinies are not the cause of this, but they are an indicator of it. The British empire expanded exponentially in a rather short period of time. This expansion required a much larger navy from the same size population. These new requirements caused the navy to be filled with less than desirable sailors, and these sailors were worked harder than before. All of these factors combined to cause dissatisfaction that culminated in mutinies and violent reactions. The atmosphere of the American and French Revolutions added to these problems. All over the world, monarchal authority was being overthrown.

Historical Context 3: The problem of authority and mutiny was complicated by changes in technology. Firearms were becoming more important and ships were becoming faster and more dangerous. Increased power was frequently put in the hands of a single person. The strife between officers and the enlisted, always a class struggle in the British navy, became more dangerous.

Historical Context 4: Because the Empire grew so quickly, manpower wasn't the only shrinking resource. It was difficult for the British to build and pay for enough ships to patrol their holdings all over the world. This shortage forced admirals to commission ships to duties they were not built for.

Historical Context 5: Before writing this story, Melville's cousin preceded over a court-martial at sea in the American navy. Three men were hanged on the ship for conspiracy to mutiny. Melville has the officers on the Bellipotent reflect on this event. The sternness of the British navy of this period is, in part, ironic. The British empire was created in part by pirates. The royal commission offered money to privateers to raid and sack French and Spanish ships and settlements in the New World. These privateers eventually became part of the fleet that destroyed the formidable Spanish Armada.

Historical Context 6: Melville admits that there are two kinds of history. The first is the official history. Naval officials record Billy as a criminal rightly put to death. The second kind of history is the people's history. Billy is rightly remembered in the songs of many sailors who will surely never read the official report.

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