The World Aboard the Seventy-Four: A Visual Introduction to Billy Budd

The world aboard a seventy-four gun Man-of-War -- that is, the world in which Melville sets Billy Budd -- is in many ways one of complexity such as could confuse the reader. Of course, without any knowledge whatsoever of the ship's layout, one can still grasp the flow of events and the chronology of the narrative; but understanding the nature of that complexity can help one better understand the specifics of the narrative.

Take, for example, the important proposition scene which plays out in Chapter 15. When Billy is approached by Damme, Melville specifically tells us that Billy was "stretched under the lee of the booms, a piled ridge of spare spars amidships between fore-mast and mainmast and among which the ship's largest boat, the launch, was stowed." British Men of War Approaching a Dutch Port, artist unidentified We are told further that Billy can be there at all because, "his station aloft on duty as a foretopman being just over the deckstation of the forecastlemen, entitl[es] him according to usage to make himself more or less at home in that neighborhood." The afterguardsmen needs a private place -- in this case provided by slipping "into the lee forechains" -- so that he can proposition a mutiny. The pair descend to "a tarry balcony, in short, overhanging the sea, and so secluded that one mariner of the Indomitable, a non-conformist old tar of a serious turn, made it even in daytime his private oratory." After the interview, Melville closes the chapter with a further emphasis on the geography and territorialism aboard a warship. The forecastlemen, we learn, are "the most jealous in resenting territorial encroachments, especially on the part of any of the afterguard, of whom they have but a sorry opinion, chiefly landsmen, never going aloft except to reef or furl the mainsail and in no wise competent to handle a marlinspike or turn in a dead-eye, say."

Placement aboard the Man-of-War ultimately proves of paramount importance. Where things happen in Billy Budd comes to determine whether certain things happen at all. Thus, the placement of the proposition scene can successfully underscore the latent dissatisfaction aboard the ship which necessitates absolute secrecy; the set up of the mess hall where Billy spills his soup provides a site for piquing Claggart's hatred (Chapter 10); the layout of the Captain's cabin provides for a drumhead court which will condemn Billy (Chapters 21 & 22); and the yardarm from which the hero will hang can become a relic for others (Chapter 31).

By visualizing the world aboard the Seventy-Four, all readers can better grasp not only WHERE but HOW certain events can take place. To that end, explore the ships below; click on the smaller picture to zoom in.

from As the caption on the image indicates, the French seventy-four, Terrible, was captured by the Royal Navy in 1747. Even before the Napoleonic Wars towards the end of the century, the English, the Dutch, the Spanish, and the French competed vigorously for control of the waters around the Continent and in the Mediterranean, for control of the waters meant largely control of international trade. The British, always in search of better techniques in shipbuilding often looked to the French for ideas -- a captured ship of the line could provide a working model. In 1797, the year of this narrative, of the 300+ ships of the line, over one-third were seventy-fours.
from This image shows a British seventy-four with the lower course sails partially reefed. While reducing the exposed surface area of the lower sails could compromise power and speed, the higher topsails and topgallant sails were often lighter and easier to manage, especially when wind conditions were unpredictable. This image also shows how low in the water a seventy-four sits. As you can tell, much of the ship lay below the water line.
from Like the previous image, this shows a British man-of-war at sea. In the background, you can also see other ships of the fleet. The term fleet refers generically to any collection of ships from a small flotilla to the whole naval force of a country. Over the course of the naval wars with France, the entire British fleet numbered anywhere from 100 to 500 ships. In 1797, it numbered approximately 480, 317 of which were rated men-of-war. At Trafalgar, Nelson's fleet of 27 faced a combined French and Spanish fleet of 33.
from This shows a cut from the mid-section of a seventy-four. The top level is the main deck; the next two levels are the upper and lower gun decks; the next level is the lowest deck of the ship, called the orlop; and below the orlop is the section reserved for ballast and storage. You can get an idea of how cramped life below decks could have been. The ship not only had to carry all the men, it also had to carry a full provision of food, water, guns, etc
by J.W.M. Turner As the caption notes, this is a rendering of the famed Battle of Trafalgar. For more on Nelson and the battle, click here.

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