If you ever stroll along the stretch of Jalan Istana in Sandakan, the much talked-about ‘Agnes Keith House’ is hard to miss, with its sprawling green lawns and colonial-style architecture.
This former British colonial government quarters, called Newlands, was once occupied by famous American writer, Agnes Newton Keith, who penned 'Land Below The Wind' in 1939. Two books followed her first success, 'Three Came Home' (1946) and 'White Man Returns' (1951). With the exception of her second book, 'Land Below The Wind' and 'White Man Returns' were written in the house on the hill where she had the best views of Sandakan Bay at the front and the Sulu Sea at the back.
Newlands was rebuilt sometime between 1946 and 1947 and was the first government permanent timber dwelling to be built after the Second World War. It was built upon the ruined foundations of the original house that was destroyed during the war. The house became home to Agnes and her family, Henry (also referred to as Harry) George Keith, who was the Conservator of Forests, and their son, George.
When the Keith’s left Sabah in 1952, the house was occupied by subsequent Conservators of Forests, forestry officers, volunteers and other staff. Though the Keith’s never returned to Sabah, the house was always referred to as Agnes Keith's House by visitors who never stopped coming to see it.
Today the house has been restored and turned into a heritage house by Sabah Museum, in collaboration with the Federal Department of Museums and Antiquities. It provides interesting insights to life during British North Borneo and is furnished with a reproduction of colonial furniture and antiques. A gallery on the first floor tells the story of this remarkable woman, her books and her family. A Keith time-line starts in 1873 and ends in 2004 tracing the past to the present Keith’s.