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I feel that in order to understand why Captain Vere executed Billy Budd for killing Claggart, we need to understand who Captain Vere was. He was an intelligent, guileless, clear-thinking, and just man. He was fully devoted to his duty in the British Navy as commander of the Indomitable.
He ruled his ship by the book and expected everyone on board it to adhere to the naval code, even those who were impressed upon it. The book tells us he was a “sailor of distinction even in a time prolific of renowned seamen.
” It also gives us a peek into the reason behind his demeanor; “He had seen much service, been in various engagements, always acquitted himself as an officer mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline; thoroughly versed in the science of his profession, and intrepid to the verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so.
” He was a confident leader who was often ridiculed, behind his back, by his fellow officers because of his “pedantic streak”.
They compared it to “King’s yarn running through a coil of navy rope”, which symbolized his meticulous attention to detail, knowledge of the naval code, loyalty to his country and unwavering sense of duty. I feel his “pedantic streak” is the most important part of understanding Captain Vere and his decision concerning Billy’s situation.
Captain Vere opposed the political opinions of his day, because he believed they were detrimental to the good of humankind. He also believed in a monarchial society with one person in charge of deciding what is best for everyone. I think these feelings influenced his decision to execute Billy.
Captain Vere knew that Billy’s actions were innocent. He knew Billy did not mean to kill Claggart and that Claggart’s accusations toward Billy were false. Regardless of whether Billy meant to kill Claggart or not, he struck an officer of the British Navy, a crime which is punishable by death itself. Captain Vere is faced with the most important decision of his time as the Indomitable’s commander, but he wastes no time deliberating over it. I believe he called the drumhead court in order to officially record the incident, according to protocol. He had already decided that Billy would have to die for his actions, according to the Mutiny Act.
He describes his feelings about Billy killing Claggart as “Struck dead by and angel of God! Yet the angel must hang! ” Captain Vere was in a very tense situation. At the time Billy killed Claggart, the Indomitable was alone after giving chase to a French frigate and failing to capture it. Also Claggart had impressed upon Captain Vere the possible talk of mutiny among the sailors. Even though Captain Vere knew that Claggart’s accusations of Billy being involved in a conspiracy were false, he had no way of knowing about the other men. I believe that Captain Vere feared the consequences if word got out that Billy had killed Claggart.
After all Claggart was the ship’s Sergeant-at-Arms, it was his duty to keep the men in line. Without Claggart the disgruntled men may very well commit mutiny. Knowing this Captain Vere makes his decision based upon the situation at hand. If Billy’s action goes unpunished the men may see a weakness in Captain Vere, which could be a key opportunity for a mutiny. Knowing that mutinies have badly-shaken the already depleted British navy, Captain Vere is not about to let this happen aboard the Indomitable. Despite his feelings for Billy, he must make an example out of him to keep from showing weakness.
A separation from the main fleet during wartime elevated Captain Vere’s power and responsibility to god-like status. He is solely responsible for the Indomitable and all crewmembers on board. Captain Vere’s strict adherence of the naval code restricts his mind from being persuaded by the drumhead court to wait until the Indomitable rejoins the main fleet before deciding Billy’s fate. He persist that the crew of the Indomitable owes allegiance to the King and not to nature. As I said earlier, I feel that Captain Vere’s “pedantic streak” is the reason behind his harsh decision. His “by the book” demeanor takes control of the situation.
Captain Vere lets his devotion to duty and loyalty to the King’s navy override what he knows is morally right. Captain Vere performed the duties of his position in the King’s navy precisely and according to the naval code. Immediately following the meeting of the drumhead court he confined Billy and placed a guard by the door to watch him. He calls all the crew to the deck and informs them of the event and that Billy has been tried and convicted and will be executed the next morning. Then he proceeded to give Claggart a proper burial, according to naval code formalities, as the crew watch.
Captain Vere then went to Billy to discuss the charge against him and tell him the punishment for his crime. The next morning, after Billy has seen the Chaplain, Captain Vere reassembles the crew to the deck to witness Billy’s hanging. Billy is executed and the crewmembers are dismissed. After Billy’s body is prepared for burial the crew is called to the deck one last time to witness Billy’s burial. Captain Vere followed naval code protocol exactly. Every action was textbook perfect. Captain Vere’s “pedantic streak” came through at a time when attention to detail was most crucial.
Billy’s last words were “God Bless Captain Vere! ” I believe Billy saw Captain Vere was looking out for the good of the entire ship and maybe even the entire British navy. A good leader always puts the welfare of the whole above the interest of one person. This is exactly what Captain Vere did. He chose to sacrifice Billy for the welfare of the King’s navy. I feel that Captain Vere did exactly what he had to do. By executing Billy, he proved to the crew that he was totally committed to his duty and to the King. He did what every great leader has to do to win the loyalty and support of his subordinates; He led by example.