Agnes Newton Keith

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 a Japanese POW and civilian internee camp in 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.cite book|title=Three Came Home|author=Agnes Newton Keith|publisher=Mermaid Books, Michael Joseph, London|date=1955|pages=14-15] She attended the University of California, Berkeley for four years, and upon graduating got a job with the "San Francisco Examiner".cite book|title=Land Below the Wind|author=Agnes Newton Keith|publisher=Michael Joseph, London|date=1958|pages=17-18] 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'. [Keith 1955, pp.15-16.]

In 1934 she married Henry 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 whilst 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. [Keith 1955, p.16]

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 State Museum. He had worked in Borneo since 1925, and was based in Sandakan. [Keith 1958, pp.15-16] 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. [Keith 1958, dustjacket]

The Keiths were on leave in Canada when war was declared on September 3 1939. Harry was immediately ordered back to Borneo. Agnes's first child, Henry George Newton Keith, known as George, was born in Sandakan on April 5 1940. [Keith 1955, pp.13, 16-17] The Japanese invading forces landed in Sandakan on January 19 1942. For the first few months of occupation, the Keiths were allowed to stay in their own home. On May 12, 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. [Keith 1955, pp.31-39] They spent eight months there before Agnes and George were sent to Kuching in Sarawak. They left by a small steamer on January 12 1943 and arrived on January 20. [Keith 1955, pp.68-74] They were imprisoned in Batu Lintang camp near Kuching, unusual in that it accommodated both prisoners of war and civilian internees in eight separate compounds.cite book|title=Japanese Empire in the Tropics|author=Ooi Keat Gin|publisher=Ohio University Center for International Studies, Monographs in International Studies, SE Asia Series 101|date=1998|pages=569-570, 139] Harry later arrived at the camp. [Keith 1955, p.82] The camp was finally liberated on September 11 1945 by the 9th Australian Army Division under the command of Brigadier T. C. Eastick. [Ooi 1998, pp.329, 569-570, 626-627] All three members of the Keith family had survived their internment.

Although punishable by death if discovered, many inmates of the camp, both civilian and POW, kept diaries and notes about their imprisonment. [Keith 1955, p.93] One of Agnes's fellow female internees, Hilda E. Bates, described Agnes in her diary entry dated 21st 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!".

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."cite web|url=|title="War"|accessmonthday=25 April|accessyear=2007] 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.

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, [Keith 1955, p.203] 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.

Agnes and George finally returned to Sandakan in 1947, a full year after Harry.cite book|title=White Man Returns|author=Agnes Newton Keith|publisher=Mermaid Books, Michael Joseph, London|date=1956|pages=15-19] 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. [Keith 1956] 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 re-issue of "Land Below the Wind" in Sabah on July 6, 2007.cite web|url=|title="Land Below the Wind" to be reissued|author=Anon (February 3, 2007)|New Sabah Times|accessmonthday=12 February|accessyear=2007]


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 1946-1947 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 Museums and Antiquities in 2001. The house is a rare survival of 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.cite web|url=|title=Visit to "Newlands", the Agnes Newton Keith House|author=Leslie A.K. James|publisher=Badan Warisan Malaysia/Heritage Malaysia Trust|accessmonthday=12 February|accessyear=2007]

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.cite web|url=|title=News of the World|author=Anon|publisher=Unasylva: An International Review of Forestry and Forest Products for the FAO, United Nations Vol 18(1) No 72, 1964|accessmonthday=12 February|accessyear=2007] 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.cite web|url=|title=Alpha Gamma Delta|author=Anon|accessmonthday=19 April|accessyear=2007] 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...". [Keith 1955, p.37] 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".cite web|url=|title=Press Release: Butterfields’ June Sale of Fine Books & Manuscripts Features Harold & Agnes Keith Collection of Borneo and Southeast Asian Literature|author=Anon|accessmonthday=12 February|accessyear=2007]


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.cite web|url=|title=Natural History Publications (Borneo) Land Below the Wind (Japanese edition)|accessmonthday=12 February|accessyear=2007] 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".

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

External links

* [ Tourist information for Newlands, Agnes Newton Keith's house in Sandakan]
* [ Report on a trip by members of Heritage of Malaysia Trust to Newlands]
* [ Press release on the auction of the Keiths' library in 2002]
* [,9171,856914,00.html Contemporary review of "White Man Returns" in "Time" magazine, 6 August 1951]


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