In Essington, Keneally gives an account of a Royal Marine settlement at Port Essington on the northern coast of Australia in the 1840s. The European settlers are unable to adapt their social structures and ideals to the new surroundings.
Bob Squires, a convict on the run, stumbles into the newly established township of Port Essington, which is crumbling under the effects of fatigue, disease, and madness. Squires makes himself invaluable to the marines of the disintegrating garrison. A naval vessel eventually arrives with orders to evacuate the settlement and destroy the fort to prevent it from falling into the hands of a possible enemy. Squires remains behind with a half-witted girl, Pretty Polly.