The early life of William Thornhill is one of Dickensian poverty, depredation and criminality. After a childhood of poverty and petty crime in the slums of London, William Thornhill is sentenced to death for stealing wood, however, in 1806 his sentence is commuted to transportation to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. With his wife Sal and children in tow, he arrives in a harsh land that feels at first like a death sentence. However, there is a way for the convicts to buy freedom and start afresh. Thornhill then gets sent to Sydney on a boat, by himself. After 9 months, Thornhill is finally able to reunite with his family in Australia. Sal becomes Thornhill's master, and Thornhill obtained a ticket of leave, one year later, after he demonstrated good behaviour. His son, Willie is already five years old, and Willie could not recognize his father, after being away from him for so long. Thornhill now also has another son, Richard, whom he called Dick. 
During his first night in this new land, Thornhill encounters an aboriginal and struggles to communicate with him. The following weeks, Thornhill went to work as a lighterman for Mr. King. Thornhill then brought the alcohol, which he got from Mr. King, back home, to set up his own bar, named the "Pickled Herring." Scabby Bill was a regular customer, who would entertain the customers, by dancing for money. 
Three years later, and Thornhill quits his job and works for Thomas Blackwood, a former convict who is attempting to reconcile himself with the place and its people. Blackwood lived on the Hawkesbury River, with his boat, "the Queen". Thornhill also met Smasher Sullivan, a man whose fear of this alien world turns into brutal depravity towards it.
Thornhill soon realises that the aboriginal people of Australia have a different concept of land ownership, as compared to the white settlers, and notices that many of the aboriginals were stealing his corn. Thornhill realises that Blackwood has an aboriginal wife, and son. Shocked, he goes on to tell his wife about it. He also gave the black people names, to tell them apart easily, and renamed some of them as "Whisker Harry", "Long Bob" and "Black Dick". Thornhill was also shocked to see his son, Dick playing with the aboriginal people, and he beat up Dick. As Thornhill and his family stake their claim on a patch of ground by the river, the battle lines between old and new inhabitants are drawn.
Soon after, Saggity, a friend of Smasher Sullivan was killed after a raid on his farm by Aborigines, it is Saggity's death that leads to the battle with the Aborigines. Blackwood tries to stop the fighting, but gets whipped by Smasher. In the battle between the settlers and the Aborigines many casualties are sustained on both sides, Whisker Harry kills Sullivan, while he gets shot in the stomach, and long Jack gets shot in the head.  Though Thornhill is a loving husband and a good father, his interactions with indigenous inhabitants are villainous. Thornhill dreams of a life of dignity and entitlement, manifested in his desire to own land. After befriending Blackwood under his employ, Thornhill finds a patch of land he believes will meet his needs, but his past comes back to haunt him. His interactions with the Aboriginal people progress from fearful first encounters to (after careful observation) appreciation. The desire for him to own the land contrasts with his wife wanting to return to England. The clash is one between a group of people desperate for land and another for whom the concept of ownership is bewildering.
A decade later, and William Thornhill becomes the wealthiest man in the area. He builds his own house, but he has always felt that something felt off. He also bought a new boat, named "Sarah" and renamed "Darkey's Creek" to "Thornhill's Point." Long Jack continued to stay, at Thornhill's Point, when all the other natives had fled. Thornhill's son, Dick, leaves him to live with Blackwood, and Thornhill's friendship with Blackwood also deteriorates, which leads Thornhill to have a sense of guilt of his actions.