BAKER, Shirley Waldemar (1835-1903)


BAKER, Shirley Waldemar (1835-1903)
missionary and premier of Tonga
was born in England in 1835 of a good Devonshire family. He studied medicine, went to Australia as a young man, decided to become a missionary, and in 1860 or somewhat later was sent to Tonga by the Australian Wesleyan conference. He became head of the mission, and much in the councils of King George of Tonga, who made him his prime minister. A disagreement arose with the Wesleyan authorities at Sydney in 1879, and Baker founded an independent body under the title of the "Free Church of Tonga". Some of the natives, however, were loyal to their original church and much strong feeling was aroused, which culminated in 1887 with an attempt to shoot Baker. He escaped unhurt but his son and daughter were both wounded. Four people were executed for this crime, and many were deported to other islands. In 1888 the Rev. George Brown (q.v.) visited Tonga to inquire into the position and to endeavour to heal the breach between the two churches. He did not succeed and his reports show that Baker was using his power to the disadvantage of those who were not adherents of the Free Church. In 1890 Sir John Thurston visited Tonga and deported Baker at short notice to Auckland, where he lived for some years. He paid a short visit to Tonga in 1897, settled there again in 1900, and died there in November 1903.
Baker was a man of personality and ability who for a period did good work in Tonga, but it is not easy to ascertain the truth about the happenings after the troubles began. Baker's side of the case may be found in Mennell's Dictionary of Australasian Biography, published in 1892. An opposing view is in Basil Thomson's The Diversions of a Prime Minister, pp. 3 to 25. It would probably not be wise to accept either exactly at its face value. R. L. Stevenson who called Baker "the defamed and much accused man of Tonga" found him "highly interesting to speak to" (Vailima Letters, p. 41). Probably the most trustworthy account of the position before Baker's deportation will be found in the Reports of the Rev. George Brown. These are the work of an honest and just man and it would appear from them that there was a good case for Baker's deportation.
P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography; The Times, 30 December 1903 and 2 January 1904; G. Brown, Reports, 1890; B. Thomson, The Diversions of a Prime Minister; Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, February 1904. The information in the earlier Times article, in Thomson's book, and in Blackwood, appear to have a common source, and some of the statements should he accepted with caution.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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