Within the naval world of the story, almost nothing is more important than the camaraderie among sailors on the same ship and their loyalty to their captain. The close bonds between fellow sailors can be seen in the example of the handsome sailor that the narrator describes early in the story (surrounded by his proud, admiring comrades), as well as the reluctance with which the captain of the Rights-of-Man lets Billy go. In addition to this camaraderie between sailors, each individual sailor also has a duty to the ship's captain, which ultimately stands in for a duty to the king. Every sailor has his own individual duties, depending on where in the boat he serves, but all these individual duties are part of a larger sense of loyalty to one's ship and captain.
In this naval culture, though, the specter of mutiny looms large. The story of Billy Budd takes place just after a period of time when the British navy had experienced a high number of mutinies, including the large-scale Nore Mutiny. Captain Vere is so careful not to have any kind of disloyal mutiny happen on his ship that he doesn't even permit Claggart to name the Nore Mutiny when he is accusing Billy of plotting against the captain. From the captain's perspective, mutiny is almost contagious: even a mere mention of the idea risks spreading disloyalty among the loyal comrades of his ship.
The line between loyalty and disloyalty is not always so clear, though. Claggart's accusations against Billy and Billy's trial blur this distinction. The reader knows that Claggart is being disloyal, lying to the captain and spreading false rumors, but Claggart makes his accusations seem as if they are arising from his loyalty to Captain Vere. (And this is how he is remembered in the naval chronicle story about Billy and him.) Billy is loyal to Captain Vere, but his act of striking Claggart is in contradiction of his duty as a sailor. In pronouncing judgment on Billy, Captain Vere is also forced to make a difficult decision involving loyalty and duty. Condemning Billy to death is, in a sense, turning his back on his comrade, the innocent sailor of whom he is quite fond. However, it is his duty as captain to follow the law. Moreover, in case a prolonged trial might lead to any possibility of insurrection on the ship, he has to make a quick decision that will ensure the safe functioning of his vessel. Thus, while the concepts of duty and loyalty become somewhat confused in the story, in the end Captain Vere makes a decision that respects his ultimate duty—to his ship and to the king—by following the law and executing Billy. But in doing so, is he in some sense being disloyal to his comrade?
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie ThemeTracker
Duty, Loyalty, and Camaraderie Quotes in Billy Budd
But they all love him. Some of 'em do his washing, darn his old trousers for him; the carpenter is at odd times making a pretty little chest of drawers for him. Anybody will do anything for Billy Budd; and it's the happy family here.
To the British Empire the Nore Mutiny was what a strike in the fire brigade would be to London threatened by general arson.
Discontent foreran the two mutinies, and more or less it lurkingly survived them. Hence it was not unreasonable to apprehend some return of trouble sporadic or general.
But the incident confirmed to him certain telltale reports purveyed to his ear by "Squeak," one of his more cunning corporals... the corporal, having naturally enough concluded that his master could have no love for the sailor, made it his business, faithful understrapper that he was, to foment the ill blood by perverting to his chief certain innocent frolics of the good-natured foretopman, besides inventing for his mouth sundry contumelious epithets he claimed to have overheard him let fall.
Every sailor, too, is accustomed to obey orders without debating them; his life afloat is externally ruled for him.
The same, your honor; but, for all his youth and good looks, a deep one. Not for nothing does he insinuate himself into the good will of his shipmates, since at the least all hands will at a pinch say a good word for him at all hazards. ...It is even masked by that sort of good-humored air that at heart he resents his impressment. You have but noted his fair cheek. A man trap may be under his ruddy-tipped daisies.
Feeling that unless quick action was taken on it, the deed of the foretopman, so soon as it should be known on the gun decks, would tend to awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew, a sense of the urgency of the case overruled in Captain Vere every other consideration.
For the time, did I not perceive in you—at the crisis too—a troubled hesitancy, proceeding, I doubt not, from the clash of military duty with moral scruple—scruple vitalized by compassion.
But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?
Marvel not that having been made acquainted with the young sailor's essential innocence...the worthy man lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martial discipline. So to do would not only have been as idle as invoking the desert, but would also have been an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function.