In 1857 when Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley and his band of rum smugglers have most of their contraband confiscated by British Customs, they are forced to put their ship up for charter. The only takers are two eccentric Englishmen who want to embark for the other side of the globe. The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson believes the Garden of Eden was on Tasmania. His traveling partner, Dr. Thomas Potter, unbeknownst to Wilson, is developing a sinister thesis about the races of men.
Meanwhile, an aboriginal named Peevay recounts his people's struggles against the invading British, a story that begins in 1824, moves into the present with the approach of the English passengers in 1857, and extends into the future (1870). These characters and many others come together in a storm of voices that vividly bring a past age to life.