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Innocent Before God: Politics, Morality and the Case of Billy Budd1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2006

Extract

I begin with the story told by Herman Melville in his short novel, Billy Budd.The year is 1797. Britain is engaged in a long and bitter war against France, and the British war effort has been threatened by two naval mutinies: the Nore Mutiny and the mutiny at Spithead. The scene is His Majesty’s Ship, the Indomitable, and the central character is Billy Budd, sailor. Billy Budd is a young man of exceptional beauty, both physical and moral, whose only flaw is a stammer. He is loved by all his fellow sailors except the master-at-arms, John Claggart. The incarnation of evil, Claggart recognises in Billy the incarnation of goodness, and is consumed by a jealousy which leads him to accuse Billy (falsely) of inciting the crew to mutiny. Alone with Claggart and the ship’s Captain, Edward Vere, Billy hears the lying charge against him. He is enraged, but his stammer prevents him from responding in words. He strikes Claggart, and the blow is fatal. Billy Budd, sailor, has killed the master-at-arms of one of His Majesty’s ships on active service, and the penalty for this is death.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2006

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Footnotes

1

Earlier versions of this paper were delivered at the Universities of Durham, Lancaster, Oxford, Southampton and York. I am grateful to all the participants for their incisive and helpful comments.

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