The Oldest Buildings in the World, Part I: Antarctica and Australia

For any building to make it past 100 years old, let alone be thousands of years old, it’s actually quite an accomplishment when you think about it. A building has to be constantly maintained in order to ensure its continued integrity. Aesthetic tastes change, land uses change, and disasters both natural and manmade occur; all of which a building has to survive to reach antiquity. Today, we present the first part of our look at the oldest known buildings on each continent, counting down from youngest to oldest (a ‘building’ defined as any human-made structure over 1.5 m/4 ft 10 in in height that was used or intended for supporting or sheltering any use or continuous occupancy).

(Part II can be found here; Part III can be found here.)

Antarctica: Cape Adare huts, 1899

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Source: K. Lechner, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Borchgrevink_Hut.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Unsurprisingly, the oldest buildings in Antarctica are going to be extremely recent compared to the other continents. Indeed, it may surprise some readers that the oldest extant buildings on the frozen continent actually date to the 19th century. Cape Adare was first discovered in 1841 during the voyage of James Ross (he of Ross Sea and Ross Ice Shelf fame), but it wasn’t until nearly sixty years later that the Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink would lead the British-funded Southern Cross Expedition here in 1899. Britain’s return to Antarctic exploration (despite only two of the expedition’s members being British), the expedition would become the first group to overwinter on the Antarctica mainland. To achieve this, Borchgrevink built two huts made out of pine that were prefabricated by the Norwegian firm Strømmen Trævarefabrikk. The expedition’s ten men (nine of who survived the winter) wintered in the main 6×4 m (21×18 ft) hut (a rather cramped existence, to be certain). Behind the main hut was a smaller hut used for provision storage. The two huts were joined together by an impromptu walkway that was also used for secondary storage space. The roofs of the two buildings were further covered in seal skins weighted down with coal.

When 1899 became 1900 and it became time for the expedition to leave, the huts were left behind. While an attempt was made to dismantle the storage hut, only the roof was ultimately removed and the huts were simply left to the elements. The main hut was left full intact along with many of its contents; medical supplies still line the shelves. The two structures continue to stand today but have suffered through more than a century of abuse from Antarctic weather. The entire site of Cape Adare has been listed as a protected area since 2002 and the Antarctic Heritage Trust is attempting to preserve the two historic buildings for posterity.

Nevertheless, despite being the location of the first overwinter in Antarctic history and the oldest buildings on the continent, Cape Adare is more famous for being the location of the world’s largest colony of Adélie penguins and where, during Robert Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-13, medical officer George Murray Levick documented sexual activities among a colony of Adelie penguins that were considered so shocking by the standards of the day that they were left out of the expedition’s final report and not released until 2012.

Australia: Wiebbe Hayes Stone Fort, 1629; Elizabeth Farm, 1793 

The answer as to what constitutes Australia’s oldest extant building is open to interpretation, as one could easily debate whether or not the older of the two candidates is still a building. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the primitive Wiebbe Hayes Stone Fort, dating to 1629, is the oldest known extant building structure in Australia.

640px-The_Fort_-_West_Wallabi_Island_-_Colour

Source: R. Gerritsen, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Fort_-_West_Wallabi_Island_-_Colour.JPG. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

The fort is the legacy of the Batavia mutiny, an incredibly brutal episode in which over one hundred men, women, and children were murdered. The Batavia was a ship of the Dutch Each India Company carrying 341 people headed for the East Indies (specifically Batavia, now Jakarta) from the Netherlands via Cape Town. Sometime in early 1629, skipper Adriaen Jacobsz (Jacobszoon) and undermerchant Jeronimus Cornelisz (Corneliszoon) plotted a mutiny to take control of both the ship and its treasure in order to raid other ships, gains more riches, and eventually head to a safe haven elsewhere in the East Indies. The pair gathered a number of followers among the crew and soldiers on board and were able to purposely steer the ship off-course to the south, eventually crashing against the southernmost coral reef in the Indian Ocean, the Houtman Abrolhos (located 80 km/50 mi west of modern Geraldton, Western Australia). En route, the mutineers staged a sexual assault against one of the high-ranking female passengers, Lucretia van der Mijlen (a.k.a. Lucretia Jans or Lucretia van der Meylen). The goal was to get the ship’s captain, Francisco Pelsaert, to discipline the entire crew and then be able to portray his discipline, signaling the beginning of the mutiny. However, Lucretia was able to identify attackers, forcing the mutineers to wait until Pelsaert formally began arresting crew members and halting the plan.

Before Pelsaert was able to mete out any formal discipline, however, the ship wrecked against the Houtman Abrolhos’ Morning Reef, just off Beacon Island, on 4 June. Of those remaining on the boat, 282 of the 322 passengers and crew survived the wreck and made it ashore. Still unaware of the mutiny, Pelsaert conducted a preliminary search for fresh water with Jacobsz and a total of 47 crew members and passengers before deciding to abandon the survivors and sail to Batavia in two of the ship’s small longboats in order to organise a rescue; amazingly, all 48 of them arrived in Batavia just 33 days later. There, Jacobsz was arrested for negligence and a boatswain, Jan Evertsz, was arrested for both negligence and outrageous behaviour leading to the loss of the ship. The governor-general gave Pelsaert a yacht to rescue the stranded survivors, who had in the meantime been left on Beacon Island under the command of Cornelisz, having seized control as the senior officer remaining.

The Wallabi Group of the Houtman Abrohlos, where most of the events surrounding the Batavia mutiny took place.

In modern terms, Cornelisz would be considered a megalomaniacal sociopath. With Pelsaert now gone, he was able to consolidate power amongst the survivors. Obtaining the remaing vessels and weaponry, he would begin eliminating opponents with the help of his fellow mutineers. Under the false pretense of sending them to search for fresh water and food, a group of 20 soldiers led by Wiebbe Hayes was ferried to neighbouring West Wallabi Island only to be abandoned in the hopes they would starve to death on the island. Other groups of survivors were deposited amongst the other islands of the archipelago. Cornelisz then openly began his mutiny, motivating his band of mutineers to perform the killings of 125 survivors, including women and children, over the next two months by a variety of brutal means, often while sleeping. A small group of women were kidnapped and held as sex slaves; Cornelisz reserved Lucretia exclusively for himself.

What Cornelisz failed to realise is that he had abandoned Hayes and the 20 soldiers on the only island in the group with fresh water. Initially not realising the horror was taking place across the straight, the soldiers were sending smoke signals in hopes of communicating with the main group on Beacon Island. Eventually, they would learn of the tragic events from survivors who had managed to sail or swim across to West Wallabi. Feeding off of the local wildlife (wallabies, oysters, shellfish, and bird’s eggs) and crafting weapons out of the flotsam from the nearby Batavia wreck, Hayes organised the troops in preparation for an inevitable attack from Cornelisz’s men (Cornelisz would have realised that Hayes and his men would survive when he saw smoke signals coming from the centre of the island, which would indicate water resources). Using the rocks on the island, they constructed a set of defensive walls and fort structures, including the stone fort whose foundations and walls remain standing today. By the time Cornelisz attacked, the Hayes group was actually large than Cornelisz’s group due to the amount of escapes that had made it to West Wallabi. In multiple attempts to take West Wallabi, the soldiers fended off the mutineers each time. When Pelsaert’s rescue ship was sighted after two months, Hayes reached it first and informed Pelsaert of the mutiny and murders. Most of the mutineers were captured and tried on the islands in order to save room on the rescue ship, including Cornelisz, who confessed after being tortured five separate times. His hands were first cut off before he was hanged.

Because of the lack of development or permanent settlement in the Wallabis, the humble stone fort has remained in place for nearly four centuries basically untouched except by the hands of nature. There is an airstrip on nearby East Wallabi Island, and it is possible to take day trips to West Wallabi via boat from Geraldton.

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Source: Sardaka, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_Farm-3.jpgLicensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

As far as completely intact buildings in Australia, the history of the 1793 farmhouse at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill, Sydney is not nearly as morbid. John and Elizabeth Macarthur arrived in Australia in 1790 with their infant son; John being a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps. Appointed Inspector of Public Works in 1793, Macarthur had his prime choice of farmland in the then-convict colony. The Macarthurs employed convict labour to clear their land and build their small house (they even fired the bricks) on the land which John Macarthur named for his wife. Over the years, the farm expanded to over 525 ha (1300 acres) as Macarthur became Australia’s first wool magnate, and the Macarthurs’ family and house expanded with it. The house was gradually pushed out to many times its initial size, but the original three-room brick cottage base remains intact within the confines of the house. The Macarthur family remains in possession of the estate until 1881. Eventually, the Swann family would hold it from 1901 to 1968, and the estate was taken over by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales in 1983 after the state government acquired it four years earlier; the vast majority of the estate having been subdivided over the years to accommodate residential growth within the City of Parramatta.

Further Reading

Antarctic Circle, The (2012). Historic Antarctic Huts. 3 July 2012. Available at http://www.antarctic-circle.org/huts.htm. Accessed 27 June 2013.

Antarctic Heritage Trust (2013). Borchgrevink’s Hut. Cape Adare – Antarctica. Available at http://www.norwaysforgottenexplorer.org/english/huts/. Accessed 27 June 2013.

Antarctic Heritage Trust (n.d.). Carsten Borchgrevink’s British Antarctic (Southern Cross) Expedition (1898 – 1900). Available at http://www.nzaht.org/AHT/HistoryCapeAdare/. Accessed 27 June 2013.

Brisbane Courier (1930). Australia’s Oldest Building – Farm House of 1793. 22 July 1930. Available at http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/21577305. Accessed 28 June 2013.

Elder, B. (2005). The brutal shore. Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 2005. Available at http://www.smh.com.au/news/western-australia/the-brutal-shore/2005/07/28/1122143943579.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap2. Accessed 27 June 2013.

McConnell, B. (1996). The Batavia. The Grey Company. Available at http://members.iinet.com.au/~bill/batavia.html. Accessed 27 June 2013.

Russell, D.G.D. et al. (2012). Dr. George Murray Levick (1876–1956): unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin. Polar Record 48(4).

Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (2005). Management Plan for Antarctic Specially Protected Area No. 159: Cape Adare, Borchgrevink Coast (including Historic Site and Monument No. 22, the historic huts of Carsten Borchgrevink and Scott’s Northern Party and their precincts). Measure 2 (2005) Annex L. Buenos Aires. Available at http://www.ats.aq/documents/recatt/Att279_e.pdf. Accessed 27 June 2013.

Historic Houses Trust of NSW (2013). Elizabeth Farm. Available at http://www.hht.net.au/museums/elizabeth_farm. Accessed 28 June 2013.

VOC Historical Society (2002). Batavia’s Graveyard: Houtman Abrolhos. Available at http://www.voc.iinet.net.au/batavia.html. Accessed 27 June 2013.

Week, The (2012). Shock at sexually ‘depraved’ penguins led to 100-year censorship. 10 June 2013. Available at http://www.theweek.co.uk/health-science/47334/shock-sexually-%25E2%2580%2598depraved%25E2%2580%2599-penguins-led-100-year-censorship#ixzz2XTSp6GJG. Accessed 27 June 2013.

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