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Billy Budd is the personification of the Handsome Sailor. He is attractive, robust, and well liked. As a young man, he is pressed into the service of the British navy. He is taken off the merchant ship, The Rights of Man, and put aboard the British ship the Indomitable. The captain who loses him claims that Billy is the finest sailor he has ever had, while the British officers can easily see for themselves that Billy is a rare type, in form and temperament.
Billy Budd, sometimes called Baby Budd, is a total innocent; he is a happy and hardworking sailor with no seeming knowledge of malice. He has trouble understanding some of the activities that take place amongst the sailors aboard the British Indomitable. He certainly does not understand why certain forces aboard the ship seem to be against him.
The captain of the ship, Captain Vere, is a solid career navy man with a slight intellectual inclination and an eagerness for reading. He is somewhat aloof with his men, but very efficient in handling his duties. Above all, he is known for being very fair; therefore, he is liked and respected by the sailors. Captain Vere is impressed by Billy Budd and judges him to be a hard-working and loyal sailor.
On the other hand, John Claggart, the master-at-arms, is not well liked, except by a few underlings who always try to please him. He is a mysterious character, who reveals little about himself, but the reader suspects that he is up to no good. He has come to sailoring late and has risen in the ranks quickly due to his ability to please his superiors. There are rumors that he isn't even British. It is obvious that Claggart does not like Billy. Billy doesn't understand why or even really believes that Claggart is "down on him."
One night Billy is approached by another sailor who wants him to join a mutiny. Billy is outraged and refuses. Not long afterwards, when the Indomitable is far from the British fleet, Claggart tells the captain that he has information about a certain sailor who is making trouble. Captain Vere, disliking Claggart, listens impatiently and is appalled to find that Claggart is speaking of Billy Budd, a sailor who the captain has quietly admired. Vere orders the two men into his private cabin to straighten the matter out. When Billy hears Claggart deliver the accusation, he is so upset that he cannot speak; instead, he clobbers Claggart with his fist. The blow kills Claggart instantly. Captain Vere, shaken by the death, immediately orders a court hearing of ship's officers to try Billy. After all, it is wartime.
A report is written in a seafaring journal about the event. Claggart is portrayed as the loyal officer unfairly cut down in his duties by a mutinous young man who might not even be British and who certainly got his due. A few weeks after the events, the Indomitable engages a French ship and takes her, but Captain Vere is severely wounded. In a few days, the captain dies after murmuring Billy Budd's name repeatedly. Billy becomes a legend among sailors, and the mainyard from which he was hung is venerated. A foretopman even composes a ballad, "Billy in the Darbies," which is the plaintive and funny song of a sailor about to be hung who appeals to the memory of the beautiful Billy Budd.