Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
At the time of Billy Budd’s impressment, the Indomitable is on her way to join the Mediterranean fleet. The meeting with the fleet is accomplished shortly afterward.
Melville provides the historical context for Billy’s impressment. This occurred in the same year, 1797, as did the mutinies at Spithead and Nore. The latter insurrection came to be called the “Great Mutiny,” and it has gone down in British naval history as an event of dire threat to England.
After the Spithead mutiny was put down, some of the seamen’s minor grievances were redressed, but these were not rectified sufficiently to prevent the later uprising at the Nore.
Not long afterward the mutineers were among the sailors who helped Lord Horatio Nelson win his victory at Trafalgar. This service seemed a full-fledged absolution for their previous mutinous behavior.
Noting that Billy Budd’s forced enlistment occurs as the ship is en route to join the Mediterranean fleet, Melville foreshadows the events which will occur when the Indomitable is again separated from the fleet. It is then that the fateful episode, which is at the heart of the story, takes place.
Melville mentions at the beginning of this chapter that the Indomitable customarily participates in maneuvers with the entire fleet. However, on certain rare occasions the Indomitable is used for special services that require a ship with superior sailing qualities, as well as a skipper who can act decisively when required to do so.
The Spithead and Nore mutinies which are spoken of in Chapter 3 foreshadow the pivotal events which appear later in the story. This context is crucial to the disposition of the commanding officer who will hold Billy’s fate in his hands.
The basic obedience of the ordinary sailor is mentioned by Melville several times during this story. This obedience is seen in this chapter in the willingness to fight with patriotic fervor at the Trafalgar engagement by the men who had previously been mutineers.
We are thus given to understand that this character trait will prove significant to the unfolding of the story.