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Shirley Waldemar Baker (1836–1903)

by Noel Rutherford

This article was published:

Shirley Waldemar Baker (1836-1903), by unknown engraver

Shirley Waldemar Baker (1836-1903), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S24/03/87/37

Shirley Waldemar Baker (1836-1903), missionary and premier of Tonga, was born in London, son of George Baker, reputedly a Church of England clergyman, and Jane Gray, née Woolmer, the daughter of a Wesleyan minister. In 1852 he arrived in Melbourne as a stowaway in the Statesman and later worked as a farm hand, miner and apothecary's assistant on the Victorian goldfields. An association formed with the Wesleyan community in Castlemaine led to his appointment as teacher in the Wesleyan school at Old Post Office Hill in 1855 and to his courtship of Elizabeth Powell, whom he married in 1859. In that year he offered himself as a Wesleyan missionary and in 1860 was ordained and sent to Tonga.

Baker quickly won the esteem and confidence of George Tupou, founder of the Tongan Kingdom. In a dispute between the senior missionaries and Tupou in 1862 he became the King's adviser, and played a large part in framing a code of laws which Tupou promulgated in June 1862 and which included the 'Emancipation Edict', freeing Tongans from compulsory service to their chiefs. However, Baker had not won the esteem of his brother missionaries, and their opposition, together with the ill health of his wife, led to his return to Sydney in 1866.

In 1867-68 Baker was employed in New South Wales as an itinerant speaker and preacher. Through his missionary rallies he became well known in Wesleyan circles and was elected chairman of the Tongan mission district at the Wesleyan Conference in 1869. On his return to Tonga he reorganized the mission's methods of raising funds. He allowed Tongans to give promises or pledges as well as cash at the annual collections and to redeem them at harvest time by delivering copra to the mission. A further refinement was added in 1872, when Baker arranged with the German firm of J. C. Godeffroy & Son to lend money to Tongans at collection time in return for a lien on the harvest. Through this system Baker was able to increase local collections from £2516 in 1868 to over £17,000 in 1875. At the same time he advocated ecclesiastical independence for the Tongan mission, which was granted by the annual conference in 1875, largely in recognition of the Tongan contribution to the missionary society's finances. He had also resumed the role of adviser to Tupou and was the author of the constitution which the King granted to his people in 1875. Baker was also largely responsible for negotiating the treaty of friendship signed between Tonga and Germany in 1876. The treaty, however, attracted the attention of the British authorities in Fiji and, after an inquiry by the British consul into his methods of fund raising, Baker was recalled from Tonga by the missionary committee in 1879.

Baker returned to Tonga in 1880, was immediately installed by Tupou as his premier and resigned from the Wesleyan ministry. Under his administration Tongan finances were reorganized, the land laws were revised and a National system of education was set up in competition with the Wesleyan system. A bitter dispute developed with the Wesleyans and in 1885 Baker established the Free Church, Wesleyan in doctrine but free from Australian control. The King ordered all Tongans to join the new church; those who refused were beaten by their chiefs and despoiled of their possessions. In 1887 an unsuccessful attempt was made on Baker's life; renewed persecutions by the Wesleyans followed and six Tongans were executed for complicity in the plot. The disturbances led to increasing British intervention in Tonga and in 1890 Baker was deported by the high commissioner, Sir John Thurston, for being 'prejudicial to the peace and good order of the Western Pacific'.

Baker went to Auckland, New Zealand, but lost heavily in the financial slump of the 1890s and returned to Tonga in 1897. Tupou, however, was dead and Baker's influence had died with him. In his last years he made a frugal living by dispensing medicinal nostrums to the Tongans in Ha'apai. He died there on 16 November 1903 and was buried at Lifuka by an itinerant Seventh Day Adventist.

Select Bibliography

  • B. H. Thomson, The Diversions of a Prime Minister (Edinburgh, 1894)
  • A. P. Maudslay, Life in the Pacific Fifty Years Ago (Lond, 1930)
  • L. S. and B. S. Baker, Memoirs of the Reverend Dr. Shirley Waldemar Baker (Lond, 1951)
  • N. Rutherford, Shirley Baker and the Kingdom of Tonga (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1966)
  • Methodist overseas mission collection (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Noel Rutherford, 'Baker, Shirley Waldemar (1836–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Shirley Waldemar Baker (1836-1903), by unknown engraver

Shirley Waldemar Baker (1836-1903), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S24/03/87/37

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


16 November, 1903 (aged ~ 67)
Ha'apai, Tonga

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