Discussion Topic

The impact of British maritime law, including impressment and mutiny regulations, on the events and characters in Billy Budd

Summary:

British maritime law, particularly impressment and mutiny regulations, significantly impacts the events and characters in Billy Budd. The laws create a tense environment aboard the ship, influencing characters' actions and decisions. Impressment brings Billy onto the ship, while strict mutiny laws contribute to the harsh judgment and eventual execution of Billy, reflecting the rigid and unforgiving nature of naval discipline.

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What is the role of British maritime law in the novel Billy Budd?

Essay topics should take the following issue into account: the key question about Billy Budd has always been whether Billy's execution was necessary, as Capt. Vere believes, to maintain order and discipline on the Bellipotent. By the order of maritime law, Billy had to die for his crime of striking an officer--but the novel raises the question of whether it is always right to follow the law in every detail.

First, attend to the historical background. In the 1790s the British were at war with France, and mutinies frequently occurred. What bearing does this have on the nature and enforcement of maritime law at the time?

Second, you could address the question of the legality of "press ganging," or forcibly enlisting, sailors from other ships.

Lastly, you could examine the actions of Capt. Vere and the other officers who condemned Billy to death. The officers did not believe that Billy was guilty of the charges leveled against him by Claggart. In some sense, they must have known that Billy was in the right when he struck Claggart, and Claggart's death that resulted from this was an unfortunate accident.

The name of the ship Billy was taken from was Rights of Man, alluding to Thomas Paine's anti-monarchical book. So when Billy says, "Farewell, Rights of Man," his farewell takes on a double-meaning. Melville thus comments on the situation of men serving in the Navy. Early in the novel, Melville includes a chapter extolling Horatio Nelson, the admiral who helped lead the British to many naval victories and died in the Battle of Trafalgar. I would try to relate this to the novel's central theme and ask why, if Melville is questioning the rightness of maritime law, is he so intent on glorifying a traditional hero of the Navy?

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How does British maritime law, considering treatment of crew, impressment, and mutiny threat, affect Billy Budd's death?

Impressment is a critical theme of Billy Budd, as well as the brutal pragmatism that lies behind British maritime law. It's worth noting that Billy himself is not a volunteer; he's impressed into the British navy. Additionally, consider the ways in which Melville himself illustrates the brutality of naval life (I'd point to a particular incident found in chapter 9, just to give a potential starting point), and add that there's a strict hierarchy which defines naval life, by which the officers and common crewmen are set apart from one another, with an uneasy tension present between the two groups in question.

The third point of your question regards the idea of mutiny, and here I would begin by taking note of the degree of detail which Melville puts into establishing his setting. Billy Budd takes place in 1797, with Great Britain at war with Revolutionary France, in the wake of the naval mutinies at Spithead and Nore. Furthermore, I'd add that, given careful reading of the text, you should hopefully observe that insurrection emerges as a recurring theme in the story.

So, these three subjects tend to be interwoven across Billy Budd, and together they establish a picture of life in the British navy. It is brutal, it is harsh, but that brutality is itself based in pragmatism. The key scene, here, in which the entire story ultimately comes together, lies in the drumhead trial, where Billy Budd is sentenced to die.

Here I would begin by noting the conflict that emerges between regular law and martial law. All involved are actually in agreement that Billy does not deserve to die, and yet the punishment is death all the same. (In fact, the argument Vere makes during the trial scene is, essentially, that Billy has to die, because the laws of the British navy demand that he dies. To him, this is inescapable.) I'd suggest the key to answering this question is to read that drumhead scene very carefully and read into the arguments which Vere makes, where we see these undercurrents of brutal pragmatism on display. The harshness of British recruitment methods, the fear of mutiny, and the harsh brutality of maritime law, as they relate to times of war all come together in this scene, where we see the rationale which has shaped the brutality and how this entire picture fits together.

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How does British maritime law, specifically press-ganging and mutiny laws, relate to Billy Budd?

British maritime law is critical to the story of Billy Budd and how it resolves—not just in terms of how Billy Budd ultimately dies under the jurisdiction of naval law, but also in terms of the pragmatic considerations which underlie that resolution.

This is evident in chapter 22, when Billy is placed on trial after killing Claggart. The members of the drumhead court-martial sympathize with Billy's position, and it is even noted that under a regular court of law extenuating circumstances might have exonerated his actions. However, Captain Vere argues that, under this military tribunal, maritime law is clear: the punishment is death.

This verdict then raises a question: how does impressment enter into the picture? The answer is multifaceted. For one thing, it is ultimately through the practice of press-ganging that Billy Budd joins the British Navy: it wasn't by choice. The practice of impressment actually arose from practical implications; in order to attain large numbers of sailors, men were forcibly impressed into the British Navy against their will. This practice ultimately helped to shape the brutal severity that characterized British maritime law.

Finally, one should consider the context provided by the story's setting. Billy Budd is set in 1797, when Great Britain was at war with Revolutionary France and was reeling from the aftermath of large-scale mutinies in 1797. Thus, given the context, the subjects of mutiny and maritime law were of paramount importance in the British Navy at the time.

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