Sandakan 's old town was built along a narrow strip of land in a sheltered bay on the north eastern part of Sabah . Most visitors to Sandakan arrive with an agenda. This town isn't one to visit for the sake of taking in the sights. Early writers regaled the unmatched beauty of Sandakan bay looking out into the vast Sulu Sea. A small expatriate community of 80 or so made a life in this remote jungle town. Wooden houses on stilts lined the coast and large barges floated down from the interior filled with large, precious hardwood logs. timber ready for processing and for export back to Britain and Europe .

sandakan bay - view from the Puuh Jih Shih Buddhist Temple

About a century earlier, this unpopulated land came under the suzerainty of the Sultan of Sulu who ruled the southern islands, (which was later to be part of the Philippines ), as with much of Northern Borneo . The mysterious wild islands in South East China Seas brought many adventurers and fortune seekers from Europe, ready to sacrifice their lives to the unknown in search of riches readily awaiting to be tapped in its natural resources. William Clarke Cowie, a Scottish gun smuggler from Glasgow, received permission from the Sultan to establish a small trading base. He built the first European settlement and called it Sandakan, which in Tausug (Sulu) means " the place that was pawned ".

In 1878, Sultan Jamalul Alam - Sultan of Sulu needed firearms to hold back advancing Spanish colonizers from taking control of the Sulu Archipelago. With limited finances and lack of firearm supplier, the Sultan leased his territory of North Borneo to Gustavus von Overbeck, an Austrian who was the Austro-Hungarian Empire's consul-general in Hong Kong . Overbeck found financial backing from the Dent brothers - Alfred and Edward Dent. With Dents' financial aid, Overbeck managed to procure the firearms and also paid the Sultan an annual sum of 5,000 Malaysian dollars. However, Overbeck could not interest his government to invest in this new land and he later pulled out of the venture. Alfred Dent, his brother and several others later formed the British North Borneo Chartered Company. Unlike Sarawak under the ruling of the Brooke Dynasty, North Borneo was run by a company. even though in 1888, it became a protectorate of Great Britain. The British Administration was only largely in charge of foreign relations.

Work started soon and forests were being harvested for its tropical wood especially so for its hardwood. In the mid-1930s, Sandakan's timber export reached 180,000 cubic meters, making it the largest timber-exporting port of tropical wood in the world.

The harbour was chock-a-block with barges laiden with timber. The Conservator of Forests, Henry (or more affectionately known as Harry) Keith had been in Sabah since 1925. In 1934, he married Agnes Newton who came to live in a modest colonial house on a hilltop, in Sandakan and made Sabah a dot in the world map with having written several books accounts of her life during her tenure in Sabah. Now the Sabah is commemorating her by having restored her home on the hill.

Agnes Keith's House

Agnes and Harry Keith's house sits atop a hill, overlooking the Sandakan Bay. In her first book, 'Land Below The Wind', she writes,' When we sat in that house and looked out through its open doors the harbor of Sandakan.became a background to our entire world. I knew then that was where I wanted to live.' Agnes and Harry lived in their original house from 1934 until 1942 when they were interned by the Japanese and sent to prison camps first on Pulau Berhala near Sandakan and then to the Batu Lintang camp at Kuching. Harry persuaded Agnes to write accounts of their lives in Sandakan and in Sabah to pass her leisure time. Agnes had a books published. First of the trilogy was published in 1939 and became a big seller in America where she came from. The 2 nd book, Three Came Home was her account as an intern in prison camps during the Japanese Occupation and was published in 1946. The 3 rd book, White Man Returns was published in 1951, an account of life in Sandakan - post war.

When the Keith family returned to Sandakan after the war they found their house destroyed, as with the rest of Sandakan town. Sandakan had to be built from scratch again. The retreating Japanese army razed the town and Keith's house, which was occupied by Japanese officers, was no exception. It was rebuilt in 1946-47 on the original foundations to the same design and was the first government permanent timber house to be built after the war.

Agnes and Harry named it "Newlands" and they lived in it until they left Sabah in 1952. After their departure, the house passed through many tenants and in the 1990's was left abandoned to vagrants. In 2001, the Sabah Museum in collaboration with the Federal Department of Museums began restoration work on the house.

Today Agnes Keith's house is a prime example of how, if we put our mind into it . we can produce quality. Unlike many other projects that have all but put our country to shame that has shown such inadequate research and non-commitment placed on those projects.

Although the house is but any other colonial house found ubiquitous some 60years ago. it's now become a rarity as Malaysia surges towards 2020's vision of modernisation. Many have been torn down to make way for development unfortunately. Agnes Keith's house has a story to tell. On the 1 st floor, a well documented account of Agnes and Harry's life is displayed in a series of Perspex sheets and an audio visual room has great video screenings of what it was like in Sandakan during the early 1900's. If you wish to watch the videos, just ask the officer and he will be more than happy to screen them for you.

Opening Hours: 9.00am - 5.00pm everyday

Entrance fee: RM15 Non Malaysians. RM2 Malaysians

Location: hilltop at Jalan Istana. Visitors can either follow the Sandakan trail route. There is a trail up some 100 steps (also known as stairs with a hundred steps) from the old town area. The trail sits right opposite the Sandakan Tourist Information Centre.

Just a hop away is the english teahouse which serves English meals as well as afternoon tea and scones. Those interested in a game of croquet can have a game whilst sipping cold lemonade on a sunny day.