The history of the Maldives is that of a small, isolated and peaceful nation constantly trying to contain the desires of its powerful neighbours and would-be colonisers. It’s also an incredibly hazy history for the most part – of which little before the conversion to Islam in 1153 is known. Indeed, the pre-Muslim period is full of heroic myths, mixed with conjecture based on inconclusive archaeological discoveries.
The Maldivian character has clearly been shaped by this tumultuous past: hospitable and friendly but fiercely proud and independent at the same time, it’s safe to say that no conquering armies have got very far trying to persuade the Maldivian people of its benevolence.
More recently the history of the country has been defined by the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, president for three decades and a man often jokingly referred to as the CEO of the Maldives, because he runs it like a giant tourist corporation. It’s no joking matter though, as the police brutality and human rights abuses that have occurred under his rule are shocking and – perhaps worst of all – virtually ignored around the world.
Some archaeologists, including the now much-dismissed Thor Heyerdahl, believe that the Maldives was well known from around 2000 BC, and was a trading junction for several ancient maritime civilisations including Egyptians, Romans, Mesopotamians and Indus Valley traders. The legendary sun-worshipping people called the Redin may have descended from one of these groups.
Around 500 BC the Redin either left or were absorbed by Buddhists, probably from Sri Lanka, and by Hindus from northwest India. HCP Bell, a British commissioner of the Ceylon Civil Service, led archaeological expeditions to the Maldives in 1920 and 1922. Among other things, he investigated the ruined, dome-shaped structures (hawittas), mostly in the southern atolls, that he believed were Buddhist stupas similar to the dagobas found in Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
For many years, Arab traders stopped at the Maldives en route to the Far East – their first record of the Maldive islands, which they called Dibajat, is from the 2nd century AD. Known as the ‘Money Isles’, the Maldives provided enormous quantities of cowry shells, an international currency of the early ages. The cowry is now the symbol of the Maldives Monetary Authority. It must have been an almost magical land at the time – forget money growing on trees, in the Maldives it was washed up on the shore!
Abu Al Barakat, a North African Arab, is credited with converting the Maldivians to Islam in 1153. According to the legend, young virgin girls in Male’ were chosen from the community and left alone in a temple as a sacrifice to Rannamaari, a sea jinni. One night Barakat took the place of a prospective sacrificial virgin and drove the demon away by reading from the Islamic holy book, the Quran. The Maldivian king at the time was sold on Islam, and ordered that the whole country convert.
A series of six sultanic dynasties followed, 84 sultans and sultanas in all, although some did not belong to the line of succession. At one stage, when the Portuguese first arrived on the scene, there were actually two ruling dynasties, the Malei (or Theemuge) dynasty and the Hilali.
Early in the 16th century the Portuguese, who were already well established in Goa in western India, decided they wanted a greater share of the profitable trade routes of the Indian Ocean. They were given permission to build a fort and a factory in Male’, but it wasn’t long before they wanted more from the Maldives.
In 1558, after a few unsuccessful attempts, Captain Andreas Andre led an invasion army and killed Sultan Ali VI. The Maldivians called the Portuguese captain ‘Andiri Andirin’ and he ruled Male’ and much of the country for the next 15 years. According to some Maldivian beliefs, Andre was born in the Maldives and went to Goa as a young man, where he came to serve the Portuguese. (Apart from a few months of Malabar domination in Male’ during the 18th century, this was the only time that another country has occupied the Maldives; some argue that the Portuguese never actually ruled the Maldives at all, but had merely established a trading post.)
According to popular belief, the Portuguese were cruel rulers, and ultimately decreed that Maldivians must convert to Christianity or be killed. There was ongoing resistance, especially from Mohammed Thakurufaanu, son of an influential family on Utheemu Island in the northern atoll of Haa Alif. Thakurufaanu, with the help of his two brothers and some friends, started a series of guerrilla raids, culminating in an attack on Male’, in which all the Portuguese were slaughtered.
This victory is commemorated annually as National Day on the first day of the third month of the lunar year. There is a memorial centre on the island of Utheemu to Thakurufaanu, the Maldives’ greatest hero, who went on to found the next sultanic dynasty, the Utheemu, which ruled for 120 years. Many reforms were introduced, including a new judicial system, a defence force and a coinage to replace the cowry currency.
The Portuguese attacked several more times, and the rajahs of Cannanore, South India, (who had helped Thakurufaanu) also attempted to gain control. In the 17th century, the Maldives accepted the protection of the Dutch, who ruled Ceylon at the time. They also had a short-lived defence treaty with the French, and maintained good relations with the British, especially after the British took possession of Ceylon in 1796. These relations enabled the Maldives to be free of external threats while maintaining internal autonomy. Nevertheless, it was the remoteness of the islands, the prevalence of malaria and the lack of good ports, naval stores or productive land that were probably the main reasons neither the Dutch nor the British established a colonial administration.
In the 1860s Borah merchants from Bombay were invited to Male’ to establish warehouses and shops, but it wasn’t long before they acquired an almost exclusive monopoly on foreign trade. The Maldivians feared the Borahs would soon gain complete control of the islands, so Sultan Mohammed Mueenuddin II signed an agreement with the British in 1887 recognising the Maldives’ statehood and formalising its status as a protectorate.
In 1932 the Maldives’ first constitution was imposed upon Sultan Shamsuddin. Until this time the Maldives had always had an unwritten constitution much like the British, and historical records show that pre-20th century Maldives was relatively progressive and democratic by the standards of the time. However, the imposition of the constitution marks the dawn of true Maldivian statehood. The sultan was to be elected by a ‘council of advisers’ made up of Maldivian elite, rather than being a hereditary position. In 1934, Shamsuddin was deposed and Hasan Nurudin became sultan.
WWII brought great hardship to the Maldives. Maritime trade with Ceylon was severely reduced, leading to shortages of rice and other necessities – many died of illness or malnutrition. A new constitution was introduced in 1942, and Nurudin was persuaded to abdicate the following year. His replacement, the elderly Abdul Majeed Didi, retired to Ceylon leaving the control of the government in the hands of his prime minister, Mohammed Amin Didi, who nationalised the fish export industry, instituted a broad modernisation programme and introduced an unpopular ban on tobacco smoking.
When Ceylon gained independence in 1948, the Maldivians signed a defence pact with the British, which gave the latter control of the foreign affairs of the islands but not the right to interfere internally. In return, the Maldivians agreed to provide facilities for British defence forces, giving the waning British Empire a vital foothold in the Indian Ocean after the loss of India.
In 1953 the sultanate was abolished and a republic was proclaimed with Amin Didi as its first president, but he was overthrown within a year. The sultanate was returned, with Mohammed Farid Didi elected as the 94th sultan of the Maldives.
While Britain did not overtly interfere in the running of the country, it did secure permission to re-establish its wartime airfield on Gan Island in the southernmost atoll of the country, Addu. In 1956 the Royal Air Force began developing the base, employing hundreds of Maldivians and resettling the Gan people on neighbouring islands. The British were informally granted a 100-year lease of Gan that required them to pay £2000 a year.
When Ibrahim Nasir was elected prime minister in 1957, he immediately called for a review of the agreement with the British on Gan, demanding that the lease be shortened and the annual payment increased. This was followed by an insurrection against the Maldivian government by the inhabitants of the southern atolls of Addu and Huvadhoo, who objected to Nasir’s demand that the British cease employing local labour. They decided to cut ties altogether and form an independent state, electing Abdulla Afif Didi president.
In 1960 the Maldivian government officially granted the British the use of Gan and other facilities in Addu Atoll for 30 years (effective from December 1956) in return for the payment of £100, 000 a year and a grant of £750, 000 to finance specific development projects. Later, Nasir sent gunboats from Male’ to quash the rebellion in the southern atolls. Afif fled to the Seychelles, then a British colony, while other leaders were banished to various islands in the Maldives. Afif later became the Seychelles foreign minister.
In 1965 Britain recognised the islands as a completely sovereign and independent state, and ceased to be responsible for their defence (although it retained the use of Gan and continued to pay rent until 1976). The Maldives was granted independence on 26 July 1965 and later became a member of the UN.
Following a referendum in 1968 the sultanate was again abolished, Sultan Majeed Didi retired to Ceylon and a new republic was inaugurated. Nasir was elected president. In 1972, the Sri Lankan market for dried fish, the Maldives’ biggest export, collapsed. The first tourist resorts opened that year, but the money generated didn’t benefit many ordinary inhabitants of the country. Prices kept going up and there were revolts, plots and banishments as Nasir clung to power. In 1978, fearing for his life, Nasir stepped down and skipped across to Singapore, reputedly with US$4 million from the Maldivian national coffers.
A former university lecturer and Maldivian ambassador to the UN, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, became president in Nasir’s place. Hailed as a reformer, Gayoom’s style of governing was initially much more open, and he immediately denounced Nasir’s regime and banished several of the former president’s associates. A 1980 attempted coup against Gayoom, involving mercenaries, was discovered and more banishment occurred. What had started as a forward-looking, reform-minded regime was already beginning to look very suspect.
Gayoom was re-elected in 1983 and continued to promote education, health and industry, particularly tourism. He gave the tiny country a higher international profile with full membership in the Commonwealth and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). The focus of the country’s economy remained the development of tourism, which continued throughout the 1980s.
In September 1988, 51-year-old Gayoom began a third term as president, having won an election where he was the only candidate, again. Only a month later a group of disaffected Maldivian businessmen attempted a coup, employing about 90 Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries. Half of these soldiers infiltrated Male’ as visitors, while the rest landed by boat. The mercenaries took several key installations, but failed to capture the National Security Service (NSS) headquarters.
More than 1600 Indian paratroopers, immediately dispatched by the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, ended further gains by the invaders who then fled by boat towards Sri Lanka. They took 27 hostages and left 14 people dead and 40 wounded. No tourists were affected – many didn’t even know that a coup had been attempted. The mercenaries were caught by an Indian frigate 100km from the Sri Lankan coast. Most were returned to the Maldives for trial: several were sentenced to death, but reprieved and returned to Sri Lanka.
The coup attempt saw standards of police and NSS behaviour decline. Many people in police captivity faced an increased use of torture and the NSS became a widely feared entity.
In 1993 Gayoom was nominated for a fourth five-year term, and confirmed with an overwhelming referendum vote (there were no free elections again, obviously). While on paper the country continued to grow economically, through the now massive tourism industry and the stable fishing industry, much of this wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small group of people, and almost none of it trickled down to the people of the atolls.
At the same time, the Maldives experienced many of the problems of developing countries, notably rapid growth in the main city, the environmental effects of growth, regional disparities, youth unemployment and income inequality.
The 1998 El Niño event, which caused coral bleaching throughout the atolls, was detrimental for tourism and it signalled that global warming might threaten the existence of the Maldives. When Gayoom began a fifth term as president in 1998, the environment and sea-level rises were priorities for him. For all his failings, Gayoom has certainly done a good job of promoting awareness of environmental change and rising sea levels, which are likely to see the country totally submerged by the end of the 21st century.
The 1990s saw the Maldives develop hugely – the whole country became linked up with a modern telecommunications system, and mobile phones and the Internet became widely available. By the end of the century 90% of Maldivians had electricity and basic hospitals and higher secondary schools centres had been established in outer atolls. With Japanese assistance Male’ was surrounded by an ingenious sea wall, which was to prove very useful just a few years later when the tsunami struck. In 1997 work began on a new island, an extra metre or so above sea level, near the capital to accommodate a growing population. It’s the only logical future the country has, given the total lack of action to prevent global warming by the international community.
In September 2003 shots rang out in Maafushi Prison in South Male’ Atoll, easily within earshot of tourists enjoying romantic evening walks on the beach of nearby Coco Island. Little were they to know that these were indiscriminate shootings of inmates protesting at the brutal murder of 19-year-old inmate Evan Naseem, a prisoner who was beaten to death by prison guards.
When Evan Naseem’s family put their son’s brutally tortured corpse on display there was a huge public outcry. Male’ spontaneously erupted in rioting, the People’s Majlis (Parliament), also known as the Citizen’s Council, was stoned and police stations were burned by the mob. The NSS orchestrated mass reprisals and beatings against the rioters, making an ugly situation even worse. To fan the flames of popular anger, in the same month President Gayoom was renominated as the sole presidential candidate for the referendum by the Majlis, which is stacked full of Gayoom family members and other appointed flunkies. Realising that something was up, Gayoom did make an example of the torturers who killed Evan Naseem, but stopped short of punishing or removing any senior ministers or Adam Zahir, the NSS chief of staff. Gayoom’s other measure was to hire the London office of PR giant Hill & Knowlton to whitewash his dictatorship, a job they continue to do today with sickening success. Meanwhile, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was founded in Colombo in nearby Sri Lanka.
Under pressure from colleagues, and clearly trying to outsmart the reformists, Gayoom launched his own reform programme in 2004. His proposals were astonishingly all encompassing, including having more than one candidate in the presidential referendum, a two-term limit for the president and the legalisation of political parties.
However, just a month later Gayoom banned political meetings of prodemocracy activists in Male’ as they are proving too popular. The darkest moment so far for the democracy movement, known to all now as Black Friday, took place on 13 August 2004. Reformist and prodemocracy campaigners all gathered in the capital’s main square, encouraged by the apparent lack of obstruction from the NSS. Former political prisoners and well-known reformists all attended with the apparent blessing of Gayoom, and carried out a successful meeting calling for reform. Suddenly the NSS cleared the square, arresting and beating over a thousand people in the process. Women and children were savagely beaten, and many were taken into solitary confinement, where they remained for months.
The stand-off between government and people continued without any obvious resolution throughout 2004, although international protests increased with human rights advocates Friends of Maldives attending the World Travel Market and handing out flyers to delegates to increase awareness of the country’s domestic problems and the increased readership of anti-Gayoom Internet sites within the Maldives.
On the morning of 26 December 2004 the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated countries throughout the region. While it could have been much, much worse for the Maldives, whose vast, deep inter-atoll channels absorbed much of the strength of the wave, the result was still devastating. Eighty-three people were confirmed dead, with a further 25 feared dead, their bodies never having been discovered. Twenty-one islands were devastated, with over 11, 000 people made homeless, many of whom continue today to exist as IDPs (internally displaced persons). Large numbers of resorts were closed and although one was totally abandoned, the rest were rebuilt with incredible speed, nearly all being open again a year later.
In the aftermath of these terrible events, President Gayoom did at least drop charges against many of the Black Friday protestors and they were released, although at the time of writing the situation is still not very positive. While it’s clear that torture has ceased being a major part of imprisonment in the Maldives, brutality both in and out of jail continues and basic freedom of expression is still not respected anywhere. The next few years will probably be key to the future of the country – Gayoom is under pressure and few expect him to last much longer. However, with no tradition of democracy, no independent print media and paper-thin civil society, there’s little reason for optimism even if Gayoom does relinquish power any time soon.
Gayoom surprised many observers by following through with his reform package and a new constitution was ratified in August 2008, which led to the country’s first freely contested elections later that year.
The first round of voting gave Gayoom a healthy 40% of the vote, while Mohammed Nasheed’s Democrats got just 25%. As no party got an overall majority a run-off was held on 29 October in which Nasheed, with the other candidates throwing their weight behind him, took 53.65% of the vote and became the country’s first democratically elected leader.
One of Nasheed’s first pronouncements as president was that his administration would not seek to prosecute any member of the former government, and in particular former president Gayoom. In the first few months of the new administration a radical reform and liberalisation agenda was set in motion, and pledges such as making the Maldives a carbon-neutral country within a decade were made, not to mention the announcement of a fund to buy land for the future of the Maldives in the event that the country is eventually lost to rising sea levels, a total ban on shark hunting, the privatisation of over 20 cumbersome state-run enterprises, and a plan for a national transportation network and the diversification of the tourism industry by the ending of the long-term policy of separating locals and travellers. With Maldivians now taking their new found democratic rights to heart, this is a very interesting time to be visiting the country and you can expect to hear vibrant debate and discussion wherever you go.