Chapters 28-29 Summary and Analysis
The crew is convened once more, this time to witness the burial at sea. When this is completed, a “second strange human murmur” is heard, this time, however, blending with the sounds of the sea fowl circling the burial site.
The presence of the sea fowl has great significance for the superstitious sailors. (See analysis.) Deeply moved by this omen, the sailors begin to display an “uncertain movement,” an infringement of naval decorum. The officers move quickly—they give the order and the crew is swiftly dispersed by a drumbeat. The sailors, long accustomed to military discipline, now stand “erect and silent.”
On the return trip to England, the Indomitable engages in a battle with a French ship, the Atheiste. In this encounter, Captain Vere is wounded by a musket ball. He is put ashore at Gibraltar with the rest of the wounded. When Vere dies there, his last words are “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.”
An old sea legend imbues sea fowl with spiritual powers, that of transporting the souls of seamen straight to heaven. Therefore, the superstitious sailors are deeply affected by the coincidence of the circling fowl at the very moment of Billy’s burial at sea.
The authorities, troubled by the disruption among the crew and concerned about a possible insurrection, deal swiftly with the “uncertain movement” and the “encroachment” evident after the burial. Melville has previously prepared the reader for the instinctive obedience of the sailors when the authorities do take action.
Just as he used irony in naming the merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man, Melville uses irony in naming the Atheiste, the ship that vanquishes Captain Vere.
Billy Budd is very close to Captain Vere’s heart, even as he lies dying. As the attendant makes clear in his verbal report to the senior officers of the Indomitable, these words were “not the accents of remorse.” Rather, they were the loving utterances of a dying man preparing for spiritual reconciliation.