The book, based in part on the author's own experiences, is about the young Wellingborough Redburn, who, threatened by unemployment, signs on to the merchant ship Highlander. He tries to pass himself off as a child from a better family, but fails. Instead, he finds himself as a simple mate under the cruel command of Jackson. The latter heads the simple sailors and intimidates them with his disfigured appearance and brutal manner. Redburn experiences all the trials of a new man on board and must try to cope in this difficult environment.
And more challenges await him! Who is the half-dead woman he finds during a shore leave in Liverpool and what plans does the braggart Harry Bolton have?