Nautical References

In order best to understand the action of Billy Budd, it helps to understand some of the specifics of the seventy-four gun man-of-war that is H.M.S. Indomitable. To that end, this page provides a basic introduction to some of the nautical terminology.

At the beginning of several sections, additional notes try to contextualize the information and make clearer the relationships of the following terms to the novel. Also, when possible, terms that share the same base and vary only in application -- foretop, foretopsail, foretopmen, etc. -- are grouped together.

If you come to this page from the text of the novel, you may click the "Back" button on your browser or click on the chapter number at the end of the entry. If you are interested in looking at the various groups of terms, you may scroll up and down this page clicking on the chapter number to see the word used in context.


As in many novels where the action takes place at sea, Billy Budd is filled with references to direction that can seem quite foreign to many readers. Below is a basic diagram as well as several of the most common directional references used in the novel.

Image from

The Royal Navy circa 1797

Throughout Billy Budd, much is made of the type of ships involved in any given action. Below are several specific descriptions of the vessels to which Melville refers.

Hierarchy at Sea


Masts and Rigging


Other Useful Terms

Batteries: Any place where the guns and mortar are mounted. The term is also used to designate collectively a body of cannon. [25]

Battle Lanterns: The lantern supplied to each gun to light up the decks during an engagement at night.[25]

to Becalm : To render quiet or calm by intercepting the current of air in its passage to an object (e.g. the jib is becalmed by the foresail before the wind).[16]

Breeching: The large rope rove through the cascabel (at the base) of a gun and secured to the ship's side to limit recoil when firing.[25]

Cabin: The apartment occupied by the commanding officer and other line officers. the cabin is often divided into compartments by light bulkheads to form two or More staterooms. Vere's cabin is divided thus.[20]

Capstan: The cylindrical wheel and axle mechanism powered by the crew hands and used to wind up a cable around the barrel. Its primary function is to weigh the anchor.[2]

Carronade: First used aboard British ships in 1779, the carronade was a short barreled, lightweight gun designed to fire heavy shot over a short distance. [22]

Class: see Grade [25]

Cordage: The generic term for any rope on a ship, but especially denoting the ropes of the rigging.[19]

Dockyard: Dockyards are the arsenals on land containing naval stores and timbers for ship-building. [31]

Watch, Dog-watch: The watch is the period of time that each division of the ship's company alternately remains on deck. A watch lasts for four hours, with the exception of the dog-watch which lasts two and serves to prevent the watch from being kept by the same men every day. The various watches are: First (2000 to midnight); Middle or Graveyard (midnight to 0400); Morning (0400 to 0800); Forenoon (0800 to 1200); Afternoon (1200 to 1600); First Dog (1600 to 1800); and Second Dog (1800-2000).[16] [18] [19]

Drum: Like the pipe, the drum is sometimes used to give orders aboard a ship.[28]

Drumhead, Drumhead Court: The Drumhead itself is the circular top of the capstan where the bars are fitted to aid in turning. The Drumhead Court, a summary court martial held while the ship is still at sea and presided over by the ranking officer, takes its name from the occasional necessity of the drumhead doing service as a writing table. Usually, only the senior naval officers -- as opposed to marine officers -- make up the court which has full power to convict and sentence while at sea. [20] [21] [22] [28] [29]

Duck Trousers: The duck trousers get their name from the material from which they are made, a linen or cotton fabric that is finer and lighter than canvas. While occasionally used for men's clothing, generally, the fabric is used for the lighter sails of vessels and the sacking of beds. [25]

Grades: Although in some ways synonymous with rank, there is a fine distinction between ranks and grade when used by members of the military or navy. In this usage, the former term distinguishes the relative authority between individuals of the same grade. That is to say, while there may be many of the same grade, there can only be one of a certain rank.[5]

Hands: The metonym term for members of the ships crew.[28]

Hull: The hull is the frame or body of the ship excluding the masts and superstructure.[26]

Lanyards: The generic term for any short piece of rope used to fasten something, make it secure, or serve as a handle.[15]

Launch: Of the several boats carried aboard a man-of-war, the launch is the largest and heaviest. Usually, it is fitted for both sails (2) and oars and stretches to nearly 30 feet.[15]

Lintstocks/Linstocks: The short staffs for holding a matchrope by which the larger guns are fired.[25]

Marlinspike: The marlinspike is a pointed tool used to part the strands of a rope so as to splice it.[15]

Mess, Messmates : Each mess designates the specific divisions of a company of officers or crew who take their meals together in a given place. Those members of the same mess are termed messmates.[18] [31]

Muster : As a verb, to muster is to assemble the entire ship's company for an inspection, exercise, or other communal activity. A a noun, the muster is a list of the members of the ship's company.[30]

Powder-boys: Also called powder-monkeys, the powder-boys were those responsible for passing cartridges to the guns.[26]

Rammers: A rammer is the long staff with a cylindrical head used in loading to press home the charge of a gun.[25]

Shotbox: The shotbox is where ammunition for the guns is stored.[9]

Side-tackles: As a means of securing the gun, the side-tackle is connected to either side of a gun-carriage as well as to the ship's side.[25]

Stateroom: A stateroom is the small room in the cabin or wardroom of a man-of-war for use by an individual, usually one of higher rank.. [20] [23]

Tar-bucket: The tar bucket is the place aboard the ship for storage of the tar used to protect rope from the weather and from dampness penetrating among the fibers.[2]

Tars: Tar is the slang term for an experienced sailor.[26]