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Agnes Newton Keith 1

Agnes Newton Keith


Agnes Jones Goodwillie Newton Keith (July 4, 1901 – March
30, 1982) was an American author best known for her three
autobiographical accounts of life in North Borneo (now Sabah)
before, during, and after the Second World War. The second of
these, Three Came Home, tells of her time in Japanese POW and
civilian internee camps in North Borneo and Sarawak, and was
made into a film in 1950. She published seven books in all.

Early life
Agnes Newton Keith was born Agnes Newton in Oak Park,
Illinois. Her family moved to Hollywood, California when she was
very young. Her father was one of the founders of the Del Monte
Company. The family moved again when Agnes was ten, this time
to the nearby beach community of Venice, California, for her
brother Al's health.[1] She attended the University of California,
Berkeley for four years, and upon graduating got a job with the Portrait of Agnes Newton Keith
[2]
San Francisco Examiner. Eight months after starting her
journalism career, she was attacked by an assailant who was convinced that the newspaper was persecuting him by
printing Krazy Kat cartoons. She received serious head injuries which affected her memory. She also became
seriously depressed, and after two years of illness her father sent her and her brother Al to Europe to recuperate.
Returning refreshed to the States, Agnes decided to become a writer, but soon afterwards lost her eyesight for two
years as a delayed result of her injuries. During this period she studied dancing, modelled clothes and 'did bits in the
movies'.[3]

In 1934 she married Henry G. Keith, known as Harry. Keith, an Englishman, had been a friend of Al's when both
boys had been at the same school in San Diego, and Agnes had first met him when she was eight years old. Keith
had gone on to work for the Government of North Borneo, and Agnes had not seen him in ten years when he visited
California while on leave in 1934. However, as soon as they re-met they decided to get married, and were wed three
days later. Three months after their marriage, following an operation to cure Agnes's eyesight, they sailed for
Borneo.[4]

Life in Borneo
Harry was Conservator of Forests and Director of Agriculture for the government of North Borneo under the
Chartered Company, and was also Honorary Curator of the Sandakan (State) Museum. He had worked in Borneo
since 1925, and was based in Sandakan.[5] Agnes spent an idyllic five years at Sandakan, sometimes accompanying
her husband on trips into the interior of the country. Harry persuaded her to write about her experiences and enter it
in the 1939 Atlantic Monthly Non-fiction Prize contest. The judges voted unanimously for her entry to win, and it
was partly serialized in the magazine before being published in November of that year as Land Below the Wind. The
book received favorable reviews: The Scotsman described it as "A delightful book ... It has abundant humour and a
pervading charm ... An original and engaging description of a country and people of extraordinary interest."[6]
The Keiths were on leave in Canada when war was declared on 3 September 1939. Harry was immediately ordered
back to Borneo. Agnes's first child, Henry George Newton Keith, known as George, was born in Sandakan on 5
April 1940.[7]
Agnes Newton Keith 2

The Japanese invading forces landed in Sandakan on 19


January 1942. For the first few months of occupation, the
Keiths were allowed to stay in their own home. On 12 May
Agnes and George were imprisoned on Berhala Island (Pulau
Berhala) near Sandakan, in a building that had once been the
Government Quarantine Station, along with other Western
women and children. Harry was imprisoned nearby.[8] They
spent eight months there before Agnes and George were sent
to Kuching in Sarawak. They left by a small steamer on 12
January 1943 and arrived on January 20.[9] They were
imprisoned in Batu Lintang camp near Kuching, unusual in
that it accommodated both prisoners of war and civilian
internees in between eight and ten separate compounds.[10]
Harry later arrived at the camp.[11] The camp was finally Agnes Newton Keith (left) speaking with Major T. T.
liberated on 11 September 1945 by the 9th Australian Army Johnson, 2/6 Field Park Company (centre) and Brigadier T.
Division under the command of Brigadier T. C. Eastick.[12] C. Eastick (right), Commander of the Kuching Force of the
Australian 9th Division, shortly after the Australians
All three members of the Keith family had survived their
liberated the camp at Batu Lintang, Kuching on 11
internment. September 1945.

Although punishable by death if discovered, many inmates of


the camp, both civilian and POW, kept diaries and notes about their imprisonment.[10] [13] One of Agnes's fellow
female internees, Hilda E. Bates, described Agnes in her diary entry dated 21 September 1944:
"Among my companions in camp are some outstanding personalities, and the following [is one] of these.
Mrs A.K. - a noted American novelist, who proposes to [write] a book on our life here. She is much
sought after by the Japanese Camp Commandant, as he has read one of her previous books about
Borneo. He evidently holds the opinion that a cup of [coffee] given in his office, and a packet of biscuits
as a gift for her small son, will ensure him appearing as a hero in said book!
"Mrs A.K. has an unusual appearance, being six feet in height, very thin, and with the stealthy lops of a
Red Indian. She dresses in a startling and very flamboyant fashion, in very bright colours, while her hair
is worn in two plaits, one over each shoulder, thus adding to a slightly Indian aura!".[10]
Mary Baldwin, a 70-year old fellow-internee, did not get on well with Keith, suspecting that she was "too ready to be
polite and co-operative with the Japanese guards and their officers in return for favours - notably food and medicine
for her infant son."[14] Co-operation with their captors was very much frowned on by the prisoners, although
understandable in this case, given Keith's no doubt powerful desire to provide for her son.
Agnes Newton Keith 3

After their liberation and a short period on Labuan Island for rest and
recuperation, the Keiths returned to Victoria, British Columbia, where Harry
had had a small country house since his bachelor days. In February 1946 he
was asked to return to Borneo by the new Colonial Administration which had
taken over from the Chartered Company. He was to be in charge of food
production. He agreed to go, and so he and his family were split yet again.
Agnes and George remained in Victoria, and Agnes worked her second book,
an autobiographical account of her imprisonment: on her release Agnes had
gathered up her notes and diary entries from their various hiding places,[15]
and she used them as the basis for her book, Three Came Home, which was
published in April 1947. It detailed the hardships and deprivations which the
internees and POWs had undergone under the Japanese, and became a
bestseller. In 1950, it was turned into a motion picture, with Claudette Colbert
playing the role of Agnes.

Book cover of Three Came Home (NB Agnes and George finally returned to Sandakan in 1947, a full year after
Does not show the Keiths) Harry.[16] Borneo was a much-changed place, having suffered doubly, first
under the Japanese occupation and then from the ferocious Allied attacks as
the liberation of the island took place. In 1951 the third book in Agnes's Borneo trilogy was published and was titled
White Man Returns. This chronicled the time from Agnes's and George's return to Borneo up to December 1950.[17]
The Keiths remained in Sandakan until 1952.

It is unclear when Agnes's and Harry's daughter, Jean Allison Keith, was born. Copies of White Man Returns are
dedicated "To my children George and Jean". It has been stated that Jean will be invited to the celebrations for the
reissue of Land Below the Wind in Sabah on 6 July 2007.[18]

Newlands
On arriving in Sandakan in 1934, Agnes moved in to Harry's
bachelor bungalow, but the couple soon relocated to a government
building on a hilltop. They lived there until they were interned in
1942. After the war the Keiths returned to Sandakan to find the
house destroyed. They built a new house in 1946-47 on the
original footprint and in a similar style to the original. They named
this house Newlands and lived there until they left Sabah in 1952.
After nearly fifty years of gradual deterioration, first under tenants
and then as an empty shell, the house was restored by Sabah
Museum in collaboration with the Federal Department of
Newlands, the postwar home of the Keiths in
Museums and Antiquities in 2001. The house is a rare survival of Sandakan. Photo taken in Dec 2007.
post-war colonial wooden architecture. It was opened to the public
in 2004 and is a popular tourist attraction. It contains displays on
Agnes and Harry Keith as well as information about colonial life in Sandakan in the first half of the twentieth
century, and is commonly referred to as the Agnes Keith House.[19]
Agnes Newton Keith 4

Philippines, Libya and later years


In 1953 Harry joined the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, and was posted to the
Philippines, based in Manila. Agnes wrote Bare Feet in the Palace about post-war life in the Philippines,
culminating in the 1953 election. It was published in 1955.
Harry then became FAO Representative in Libya, and served six years as forestry adviser in the country. He retired
in 1964.[20] True to form, Agnes wrote about her experiences in the country, publishing Children of Allah, between
the Sea and the Sahara in 1966.
In 1959 Agnes was named an Alpha Gamma Delta Distinguished Citizen.[21] The Keiths retired to British Columbia,
where Agnes continued writing. Her first novel, Beloved Exiles, was published in 1972. It was set in North Borneo in
the period between 1936 and 1951. Her last book, Before the Blossoms Fall: Life and Death in Japan, was published
in 1975.
Agnes Newton Keith died at age 80 in Oak Bay, British Columbia. Harry died the same year.

The Keiths' library


Both Agnes and Harry Keith were ardent bibliophiles. Following their deaths, their collection of books and
documents on Borneo and South East Asia was auctioned in 2002. The collection numbered over 1,000 volumes, and
had been gathered over many years. Agnes wrote of the collection, which they were forced to abandon to the
occupying Japanese forces, in Three Came Home: "Harry's library of Borneo books, perhaps the most complete in
existence, his one self-indulgence...".[22] The auction press release commented that "Many of these items are not
listed in any institutional holdings, including the British Library, and may well be the only surviving extant
copies".[23]

Legacy
The title of Agnes's first book about the then-North Borneo, Land Below the Wind, has become the unofficial motto
of Sabah. The phrase was used by sailors to describe all the lands south of the typhoon belt, but Agnes popularised
the special connection of the phrase with Sabah, by applying it exclusively to North Borneo in her book.[24]
As well as inspiring the film of the same name, Three Came Home has been cited as one of the sources for cinematic
and television depictions of women in Japanese camps during World War II. Paradise Road and Tenko both contain
scenes based on episodes in the book.

Works by Agnes Newton Keith


• Land Below the Wind Boston, Mass, Little Brown and Company (1939, November)
• Three Came Home Boston, Mass, Little Brown and Company (1947, April)
• White Man Returns Boston, Mass, Little Brown and Company (1951)
• Bare Feet in the Palace Boston, Mass, Little Brown and Company (1955)
• Children of Allah, between the Sea and the Sahara Boston, Mass, Little Brown and Company (1966)
• Beloved Exiles Boston, Mass, Little Brown and Company (1972)
• Before the Blossoms Fall: Life and Death in Japan Boston, Mass, Atlantic Monthly-Little, Brown and Company
(1975)
• Agnes Newton Keith also had articles published in The Atlantic Monthly.
Agnes Newton Keith 5

Further reading
• Moo-Tan, Stella (2002) "A Portrait of Agnes Newton Keith: Noted Author, Survivor, Heroine" Sabah Society
Journal 19
• Ooi, Keat Gin (1998) Japanese Empire in the Tropics: Selected Documents and Reports of the Japanese Period in
Sarawak, Northwest Borneo, 1941-1945 Ohio University Center for International Studies, Monographs in
International Studies, SE Asia Series 101

Citations
[1] Agnes Newton Keith (1955). Three Came Home. Mermaid Books, Michael Joseph, London. pp. 14–15.
[2] Agnes Newton Keith (1958). Land Below the Wind. Michael Joseph, London. pp. 17–18.
[3] Keith 1955, pp.15-16.
[4] Keith 1955, p.16
[5] Keith 1958, pp.15-16
[6] Keith 1958, dustjacket
[7] Keith 1955, pp.13, 16-17
[8] Keith 1955, pp.31-39
[9] Keith 1955, pp.68-74
[10] Ooi Keat Gin (1998). Japanese Empire in the Tropics. Ohio University Center for International Studies, Monographs in International
Studies, SE Asia Series 101. pp. 569–570, 139.
[11] Keith 1955, p.82
[12] Ooi 1998, pp.329, 569-570, 626-627
[13] Keith 1955, p.93
[14] "War" (http:/ / www. far-eastern-heroes. org. uk/ Baldwin/ html/ war. htm). . Retrieved 25 April 2007.
[15] Keith 1955, p.203
[16] Agnes Newton Keith (1956). White Man Returns. Mermaid Books, Michael Joseph, London. pp. 15–19.
[17] Keith 1956
[18] ""Land Below the Wind" to be reissued" (http:/ / web. archive. org/ web/ 20070223234630/ http:/ / www. newsabahtimes. com. my/ nstweb/
fullstory/ 4852). 3 February 2007. Archived from the original (http:/ / www. newsabahtimes. com. my/ nstweb/ fullstory/ 4852) on 23
February 2007. . Retrieved 12 February 2007.
[19] Leslie A.K. James. "Visit to "Newlands", the Agnes Newton Keith House" (http:/ / www. badanwarisan. org. my/ content/ ?cid=117). Badan
Warisan Malaysia/Heritage Malaysia Trust. . Retrieved 12 February 2007.
[20] Anon. "News of the World" (http:/ / www. fao. org/ docrep/ 03500e/ 03500e0a. htm#TopOfPage). Unasylva: An International Review of
Forestry and Forest Products for the FAO, United Nations Vol 18(1) No 72, 1964. . Retrieved 12 February 2007.
[21] Anon. "Alpha Gamma Delta" (http:/ / www. alphagammadelta. org/ content/ about/ accomplished. htm). . Retrieved 19 April 2007.
[22] Keith 1955, p.37
[23] Anon. "Press Release: Butterfields’ June Sale of Fine Books & Manuscripts Features Harold & Agnes Keith Collection of Borneo and
Southeast Asian Literature" (http:/ / www. e-borneo. com/ insideborneo/ leisure0206. html). . Retrieved 12 February 2007.
[24] "Natural History Publications (Borneo) Land Below the Wind (Japanese edition)" (http:/ / www. nhpborneo. com/ onlinestore/
product_details. asp?id=870). . Retrieved 12 February 2007.

External links
• Tourist information for Newlands, Agnes Newton Keith's house in Sandakan (http://www.sabahtourism.com/
attraction.php?ID=92)
• Report on a trip by members of Heritage of Malaysia Trust to Newlands (http://www.badanwarisan.org.my/
content/?cid=117)
• Press release on the auction of the Keiths' library in 2002 (http://www.e-borneo.com/insideborneo/
leisure0206.html)
• Contemporary review of White Man Returns in Time magazine, 6 August 1951 (http://www.time.com/time/
magazine/article/0,9171,856914,00.html)
Article Sources and Contributors 6

Article Sources and Contributors


Agnes Newton Keith  Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?oldid=410572271  Contributors: Allysia, Biruitorul, BrainyBabe, Dmz5, Foofbun, Frecklefoot, Huaiwei, JIP, Jasper33, Joseph
Solis in Australia, Kawaputra, Lightmouse, Michael David, MisfitToys, Rich Farmbrough, Rjwilmsi, SailorAlphaCentauri, Tassedethe, Tjmayerinsf, Tocasia, Two hundred percent, WarrenA,
Yamamoto Ichiro, 17 anonymous edits

Image Sources, Licenses and Contributors


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