Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Baucke, known as William, was born on Chatham Island on 7 July 1848. He was the second of nine children of Johann Heinrich Christoph Baucke and his wife, Maria Müller. Baucke’s father was one of a group of German Lutheran missionaries who had come to New Zealand in 1843 and shortly afterward moved to the Chatham Islands.
In 1862 Baucke was sent to school in Wellington. He later returned to the Chathams, where he became schoolmaster to both native and Pakeha children. Baucke seems to have taught himself French, Italian and Greek; he already spoke German, English, Maori, and Moriori.
It is not certain when Baucke moved permanently to the mainland. He is said to have had, for a time, a business running vessels between the islands and New Zealand. He was at Glentunnel, Canterbury, in 1903, but moved to the King Country and had settled in Te Kuiti by 1906, where he worked as a licensed interpreter. By 1914 he had moved to Otorohanga, where he is variously recorded as a journalist, builder, and farmer. Baucke immersed himself in Maori village life in the King Country and became a passionate champion of a people he saw as losers in a clash of cultures.
Baucke was best known in his lifetime for his series of tales and articles on Maori life and customs written for the New Zealand Herald and the Auckland Weekly News. This material was collected in 1905 as ‘Where the white man treads’; the book was republished in a slightly different form in 1928.
William Baucke’s life, varied though it was, may have been less romantic than he implied in some of his writings. Nevertheless, his upbringing had given him the strength of character to rise above difficult circumstances. He was eventually able to use his education and his background to advantage in preserving his knowledge of a vanished language and culture.
In Where the White Man Treads William Bauke does not pull any punches, and this series of articles, had it been written today could be classed as controversial.