The Bellipotent is on duty in the Mediterranean, but the narrator assures us that this fact is not important for the story. What is important is the historical context of the times, and this the narrator relates to us in some detail.
The central events of the story take place in the summer of 1797. In April of that year, two major mutinies had shaken the security of Great Britain's navy. The French Revolution had ignited fears of similar bloody disorder in the British Empire, and the Empire was also dependent on its navy for defense. Napoleon was on the move, and Britain's force at sea was her primary means of defense.
Melville takes a bypath, digressing to speak of the beauty of the old ships and naval values, and the excellent heroic qualities of Admiral Nelson, whose victories in the Nile and at Trafalgar saved his country from Napoleon.
Melville returns to speak of the tension of the time. Vigilance against mutiny was an obsession, and officers did not trust their own crewmen. At some battles, officers stood with drawn sword behind the men working the guns.
These three brief chapters establish the historical background of the story, so essential in understanding the fate that befalls Billy. On one hand, he establishes that this period was one of turmoil. But soon afterward, he cannot help but dwell on one of the marvelous feats of the age, the naval exploits of Admiral Nelson. Melville's digression in Chapter 4, when he speaks of Nelson, seems implicitly to justify the harshness of the navy towards its crews.
However, to say that Melville is insensitive to the injustices of life aboard a warship could not be farther from the truth. Melville had a deep and abiding concern for democracy and human rights, and his digression praising Nelson seems almost excessive. He is playing up a kind of narrative, a story praising a man so effusively that it seems to justify the man's methods and the methods of the military force in which the man serves. Melville loves the sea and the men who sail it, but the reader should be careful not to confuse Melville with his narrators. The narrator is a separate voice, and through him Melville can adapt a more subtle and sophisticated perspective. Toward the end of the novella, Melville will expose more critically the machinery of war.
Our hero is going to be destroyed by the same forces that made Nelson's victory possible, but to call Billy Budd a critique of the navy also seems too simple minded. Melville is not writing Billy Budd to try to force the military to change its methods. Rather, he is describing a situation where human rights and military power are part of a difficult and paradoxical situation. The navy ostensibly defends, among other things, the freedom of Britain. But in defending that freedom, it must deny liberties to its own crews. Thrown into this situation are questions of duty and obligation, which we will explore later when we come to the character of Captain Vere.
Melville is not necessarily for or against certain policies. He is more interested in how they play out to produce a tragedy, and the ethical questions brought up by the situation. Billy Budd is an innocent, thrown into a world full of treachery and cruelty that he is simply too good-natured to expect. Melville is capable of a deep and sinister irony, but the reader must avoid the temptation of either taking all of his statements at face value or seeing dark irony everywhere. He is content to offer complex situations, with complex implications; often, however, we must sort out the implications ourselves.