A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
Reading through my Lonely Planet Guide Borneo, I was fascinated to find out about Agnes Keith who lived in Sabah between the 1930’s – 1950’s. An American author married to the British conservator of forests she wrote various books about her experiences there between 1934 to 1952, including one about being a P.O.W in Borneo during the war, with her toddler son. The whole family survived and she wrote the story Three Came Home about that experience – subsequently made into a film by 20th Century Fox
I put a request through to the local library and was captivated reading her book Land Beneath the Winds about Sabah – being a land sheltered from trade winds by neighboring Philippines.
Today we visited Agnes Keith House in Sandakan, which was bombed and then rebuilt after the Keith’s returned from internment near Kuching at the end of the war.
Theirs is a wonderful inviting story very different from the imperial colonial story of outsiders coming in and trying to change everyone to their ways. They embraced and loved the local people and went on long treks into the interior to document and learn about the people, flora and fauna of Sabah.
Agnes was brutally beaten in the Japanese prison in Kuching and suffered from her broken bones. I read somewhere that other prisoners had observed she had kept to herself a little and had tried to ingratiate herself to the Japanese but that they had understood because she was trying to protect her toddler George.
She kept diary notes on tiny scraps of paper. These were hidden in cans and buried. Sometimes she would wake in the night and rebury them in safer places. Other notes were sewn into George’s stuffed toys. Her ration was a bowl of gruel and 70g of rice in the last months before liberation and took a year in British Columbia to recover before rejoining Harry in Sandakan who rebuilt their “Newlands” two story bungalow while she wrote the story “Three Came Home”. After her return to Sandakan she penned “White Man Returns”.
I could say so much more about how they met at Berkley University, how she was bashed by a drug addict as a young journalist and lost sight of her eyes for months, how they mourned the loss of one of their beloved Murut servants’ babies but tried without success to get them to receive medical assistance, the cheeky Murut boy Usit, the animals they raised and nursed back to health, her beautiful drawings and their travels.
Unfortunately I’m not allowed to photograph inside – not sure why but it’s the same at the Sandakan Museum, but we will all remember the pictures conjured up in our minds of their extraordinary time here in Borneo and I’m going to try and get a copy of the other books I haven’t read yet and devour them with the kids.