Sketch by Jack Chalker

Settled at Sandakan

Settled at Sandakan

The colonial community at Sandakan to which David Baldwin belonged, and which his wife was about to join, is well documented by an American author, Agnes Keith.  More of her later, but an inkling of what life was like there, especially for the 80 or so Europeans in Sandakan, is given in two extracts from her prize-winning 1939 book “ Land Below the Wind”. This is what David & Mary Baldwin experienced.

Native Village

Sandakan - North Borneo

The two photographs of  Sandakan in the 1930s help capture the colonial flavour of the place and reinforce Agnes Keith’s written impressions.  Both were postcards sent to my mother and the cross on one of them may indicate (as is usually the case) where Mary Baldwin was living at the time – some distance to the south of the town centre, across the bay.

St Andrews Night 2nd December 1938

All the men are Scotch

2 English - 1 Australian - 1 Irish - 2 Dutch Ladies

This flash photo taken at 4am. I had a good trip

Love and greetings                   Mother XXX

By the end of 1938, a year after Mary’s arrival, they seemed to have become established in Sandakan as the photograph taken on St Andrew’s Night suggests.  British North Borneo had attracted Scots since its foundation and Mary Baldwin seems at home in friendly “weel kent” company.  In keeping with colonial traditions we can now only imagine, they dressed up in hairy kilts, bow ties and long frocks for Scottish country dancing in stifling heat  - to bagpipes, whilst drinking whisky !  But where’s David Baldwin ?   Perhaps at sea again on a routine coastal trip, since he’s not in this or another photo taken on the same night.  However the following cryptic message on another postcard to my mother  suggests they had become more or less settled :


Postcard from Sandakan.4 November 1938

Your Dad & I quite well & I think getting an agreement out here for 3 years.  Hope you are all well, wearying for letters & papers,

Love, Mother.


The prospect of an agreement for another three years leads to an interesting date.  David & Mary Baldwin were planning to go home to Scotland in or shortly after December 1941.


Agnes Keith

The harbour of Sandakan lay below me. It was morning, and the water of the bay was motionless and fiat and chromo blue as on a picture postal card. The roofs of the Chinese town were very red in the sun, and the tree-covered cliffs of the coast very green, and in the distance the mass of the jungle was a deeper, duller green. The coconut trees, where they fringed the shore, were drawn in with meticulous attention to detail, and the mushroom islands which skimmed on the water were so small and perfect it seemed that I could capture one and send it home with " Greetings from Borneo."

Native boats took the wind and leaned with it, their, coloured sails abandoning themselves to it; launches cut pale scallops on the flat blue surface, and Chinese junks rocked restlessly. Only the Hong Kong steamer was dignified and discreet. Ponderously she lay in mid-harbour, with her only finery a crimson stomacher about her funnels.


In these bold stories of the Borneo wilds, it seems to me that the adventurers have passed over the most melodramatic scene of all, and the one which needs no exaggeration. Here is a jungle background almost as wild as our chroniclers picture it. Here are the aborigines, as fierce or as mild as they seem. Here is the tangled green of the jungle creepers which have constantly to be beaten back, and the wilds which are waiting to engulf again the clearing we call Sandakan. And here, living in astounding peace and security, following a social pattern as formal, as pleasant, as gently inflexible, and as uniform, as the design on a set of teacups, are the European households of Sandakan.

A few miles out elephants may be seen upon the road, and orang-utans and gibbon apes are one jump away from the jungle, and crocodiles are caught off the customs wharf, but at four o'clock in the afternoon we are drinking our afternoon tea.

Then, just as the rural pattern falls indelibly on us, and background and scene seem unalterably at odds, Sandakan is translated into terms of Graustark and played to an operetta score. There are medals and uniforms, and guns and saluting and feathers in hats, singing and dancing and native chiefs. There are Headmen and Orang Tuas, and Suluks and Bajaus and Dusuns and Muruts, and Hajis and Imams, and Chinese and Filipinos and Japanese ; there are the pagan tribes of Borneo and the ladies of Sandakan, drinking tea and eating cakes together on Government House lawn to celebrate the crowning of a British King. And there in that scene too fantastic for fiction breathes the real heart of a non-racial empire that mankind could, if he would, build to-day.


I saw a civilization where the head-hunters of Borneo still hunted heads, the Moro pirates still came down from the Philippines to loot, the Muruts still wore their hair long and went naked; where civil government was a Chartered Company, the Crown ruled but the Company paid salary, and letters from home were six weeks on the way.


Agnes Keith was an American journalist & author born in 1901 who married an Englishman and went with him in 1934 to live in British North Borneo where he had been appointed Conservator of Forests & Director of Agriculture. The Keith’s house above Sandakan, where Agnes Keith wrote her book, is shown in one of the photographs.  Having been destroyed during the war, it was rebuilt after the war exactly as it had been before and was still standing – though in sore need of restoration – in August 1997.

For a small colony with much trade in tropical hardwoods Henry Keith occupied an important and senior government post which would have placed the Keiths on a high social level close to the Governor.  They would have known the Baldwins but I doubt would have seen much of them socially – partly because of  status, but also because of David Baldwin’s frequent and lengthy absences from Sandakan and differences in ages & interests.  With a baby son, as her first book records, this led her to associate more with women with children of similar age.

As seen in the earlier short extracts from her first book, she used her powers of observation and the time made available by a privileged lifestyle to write a candid & vivid account of the White Man’s life in a small, isolated tropical colony.  Even as her American eye noted the quaintness of British colonial life she acknowledged that it was, for these Europeans at least, close to being a paradise on Earth.

Then it all fell apart.


Next Chapter




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[Baldwin] [The Beginning] [The Long Journey] [Settled at Sandakan] [War] [Release] [Last Words] [Re-Discovery] [Conclusion]


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