A matter apparently trivial, indeed.
April 14, 2010 6:31 AM   Subscribe

This might be a bit of a long shot, but I have a question about a particular passage in Herman Melville's Billy Budd.

I've searched and searched, and none of the critics I have found mention this (admittedly small) detail, and I'm really curious about it, although it is probably inconsequential.

I'm working with the Hayford and Sealts edition from 1962. On page 105 (chapter 21), the narrator is describing the formation of the drumhead court. He says,
    Captain Vere necessarily appearing as the sole witness in the case, and as such temporarily sinking his rank, though singularly maintaining it in a matter apparently trivial, namely, that he testified from the ship's weather side, with that object having caused the court to sit on the lee side.
My question is: how does Vere's testifying from the weather side maintain his rank? What is the significance of the weather side in this context? I'm not interested in this detail's significance on a metaphorical/symbolic level--I can deal with that myself. I just want to know what it means in a purely literal context, in terms of naval convention, superstition, or protocol.

I asked my father, who sailed for many years in the merchant navy, and he didn't have any idea besides that sitting on that side would give the captain a better idea of what the wind is doing to the ship.

(Other pertinent details: Melville's writing in the late 1880s, but the story is set in the late 1790s.)
posted by synecdoche to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think it was his testifying from the weather side that preserved his rank; his rank probably permitted him to be there. Locations on the deck of a ship were loaded with all sorts of meaning - certain areas were off limits to those below a certain rank. In any case, 'having the weather gauge' in a battle put your ship at an advantage, so it's not a great leap for the ranking officer to want it as well during a court session.

For nautical trivia, by the way, you really can't beat the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. It's chock full of the stuff.
posted by jquinby at 6:41 AM on April 14, 2010

Could be taken as a allusion on the part of the Captain, that in spite of his rank "temporarily sinking" due to his appearing as witness, he was still in charge of the ship.
posted by Max Power at 6:57 AM on April 14, 2010

Best answer: Passing to Windward. Vessels were supposed to pass to leeward of their superiors. To do otherwise would "steal" the wind from the superior's sales and cause him to luff or lose way. This was strictly observed if the inferior happened to be a merchantman. For "if the opposite procedure took place it is accounted as unmannerly a trick as if the constable of a parish should jostle for the wall with a justice of the peace dwelling in the same country."

Whether in men-of-war of merchantmen, the weather side was the traditional side at sea for the admiral and captain, the starboard side was the "sacred ground" when the ship was at anchor or moored. The port side was to the pier; therefor the starboard side was toward the sea and was the side where "he [the captain] can feel the wind and weather upon his cheek, can sniff the land, or sight the coming squall. It was once always customary for all weather gangways to be used by superiors."

Practically speaking, this windward advantage may have stemmed from times when showering and bathing was not only difficult but feared by the crew. Their odoriferous passage to leeward would have been distinctly more more pleasant to the officer on deck.

Naval ceremonies, customs, and traditions, By Royal W. Connell, William P. Mack

So apparently the windward side is the traditional side for the Captain, and he testifies there despite the fact that as a witness he is not testifying as the Captain.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:12 AM on April 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: They're at sea, and so I presume the members of the court are drawn from the ship's own company - lower ranking officers than the Captain, who would normally sit on the court but can't because he's a witness.

So I gather what's being said is that, as a witness, the Captain's rank is disregarded in that subordinate officers are allowed to question him and basically take on a superior role within the workings of the court process. But as a reminder that he's still the superior officer, he makes the court sit on the lee side of the ship while he takes the superior "weather" physical position.
posted by Naberius at 7:21 AM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

In all the quasi/pseudo-historical sea-faring novels I've read the weather side is reserved for the captain.

From my experience in recreational sailing, it is more comfortable to be on the uphill side of the boat. The lee side feels like sitting in a hole.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:01 AM on April 14, 2010

Naberius has it. The weather side is for superiors, the lee side for juniors. Think of it this way - if everyone stinks from not having a shower for two months, the leeward person has to smell the weather-side person.

So the court would normally set up on the weather side, a position of authority both upwind and physically above (with the ship heeling from the wind) everyone else. The captain, not being on the court, instead of moving to the leeward side, made the court move.

As you say, it's a symbolic move. You can question me, but only at my convenience and pleasure. Do not forget who I am.
posted by ctmf at 8:36 AM on April 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

In fact, we're all a lot less aware of wind than mariners are, but try it on purpose sometime (even on land.) With even a gentle breeze blowing, start a conversation with someone and change positions with respect to windward. Standing upwind just naturally feels more authoritative, like standing above them on a hill. All other things being equal, people naturally will stand across the wind. Moving upwind and talking "down" at them (and making them raise their voice a bit to talk upwind at you) feels like kind of a dick move, even subconsciously.
posted by ctmf at 9:10 AM on April 14, 2010

Response by poster: Great. Thanks everyone, especially Comrade_Robot for that citation This all confirms my reading of the scene, but I didn't have the nautical vocabulary to explain it before.
posted by synecdoche at 11:57 AM on April 14, 2010

« Older iTunes won't download latest versions of podcasts!   |   So now you're disabled! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.