Maldives is historically a small, isolated and peaceful nation, whose main challenge has been constantly trying to contain the desires of its distant neighbours and would-be colonisers. For the most part, its history is incredibly hazy, with little known of the period before the conversion to Islam in 1153. The pre-Muslim era is full of heroic myths, based on largely inconclusive archaeological discoveries.

Early Days

Some archaeologists, including Thor Heyerdahl, believe that 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 Maldives in 1920 and 1922. Among other things, he investigated the ruined, dome-shaped structures (hawittas), mostly in the Southern Atolls, which he believed were Buddhist stupas similar to the dagobas found in Sri Lanka.

Conversion to Islam

For many years Arab traders stopped in 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’, Maldives provided enormous quantities of cowry shells, an international currency of the early ages. It must have seemed a magical land to discover at the time, a place where money washed up on the shore.

Abul Barakat Yoosuf Al Barbary, a North African, is credited with converting the Maldivians to Islam in 1153. Though little is really known about what happened, Barakat was a hafiz, a scholar who knew the entire Quran by heart, and who proselytised in Male for some time before meeting with success. One of the converts was the sultan, followed by the royal family. After conversion the sultan sent missionaries to the atolls to convert them too, and Buddhist temples around the country were destroyed or neglected.

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 Theemuge (or Malei) dynasty and the Hilali.

The Portuguese

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 by the sultan to build a fort and a factory in Male, but it wasn’t long before they wanted more from Maldives.

In 1558, after a few unsuccessful attempts, Portuguese Captain Andreas Andre led an invasion army and killed Sultan Ali VI. The Maldivians called the 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 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 Maldives; some argue that the Portuguese never actually ruled 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 Alifu. 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. On the island of Utheemu, there is a memorial centre to Thakurufaanu, 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.

Protected Independence

The Portuguese attacked several more times, and the rajahs of Cannanore in South India (who had helped Thakurufaanu), also attempted to gain control. In the 17th century, 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 Maldives to be free from external threats while maintaining internal autonomy. In any case, the remoteness of the islands, along with the prevalence of malaria and the lack of good ports, naval stores or productive land, were probably the main reasons that 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. 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 Maldives’ statehood and formalising its status as a crown protectorate.

The Early 20th Century

In 1932 Maldives’ first constitution was drawn up under Sultan Shamsuddin, marking the dawn of true Maldivian statehood. The sultan was to be elected by a ‘council of advisers’ made up of the Maldivian elite, rather than being a hereditary position. In 1934 Shamsuddin was deposed and Hasan Nurudin became sultan.

WWII brought great hardship to 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 program 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 over foreign affairs 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 Maldives.

British Bases & Southern Secession

While Britain did not overtly interfere in the running of the country, it did secure permission to re-establish its wartime airfield on Gan in the southernmost atoll of the country, Addu. In 1956 the Royal Air Force began developing the base, employing hundreds of Maldivians and resettling local 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, Huvadhoo and Gnaviyani, who objected to Nasir’s demand that the British cease employing local labour. They decided to cut ties altogether and form an independent state in 1959, electing Abdulla Afif Didi president and believing that their United Suvadive Republic would be recognised by the British.

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. Brokering a deal with the British on Gan effectively ruled out the UK recognising the breakaway south, and indeed Nasir eventually sent gunboats from Male to quash the rebellion. Afif fled to the Seychelles, then a British colony, while other leaders were banished to various islands in Maldives.

In 1965 Britain recognised the islands as a sovereign and independent state, and ceased to be responsible for their defence (though it retained the use of Gan and continued to pay rent until 1976). Maldives was granted full independence from Britain on 26 July 1965 and later became a member of the UN.

The Republic

Following a referendum in 1968, the sultanate was again abolished, Sultan Majeed Didi retired to Sri Lanka and a new republic was inaugurated. Nasir was elected president, although as political parties remained illegal, he didn’t face much opposition. In 1972 the Sri Lankan market for dried fish, 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 attempted to cling 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 governance 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 prevented, but led to more people being banished. Despite Gayoom’s reputation as a reformer, he made no move to institute democracy in Maldives.

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.

The 1988 Coup

In September 1988, 51-year-old Gayoom began a third term as president, having again won an election where he was the only candidate. 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, isolated as they were in their resorts. The mercenaries were caught by an Indian frigate 100km from the Sri Lankan coast. Most were returned to Maldives for trial: several were sentenced to death, though they were later reprieved and returned to Sri Lanka.

The coup attempt saw the standards of police and NSS behaviour decline. Many people in police captivity reportedly faced an increased use of torture and the NSS became a widely feared entity.

Growth & Development

In 1993 Gayoom was nominated for a fourth five-year term, confirmed with an overwhelming referendum vote (yet again, there were no free elections). While on paper the country continued to grow economically, thanks to 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 population of the atolls.

At the same time, Maldives experienced many of the problems of developing countries, notably rapid growth in Male, the negative environmental impact of development, regional disparities, youth unemployment and income inequality.

The 1998 El Niño weather event, which caused coral bleaching throughout the atolls, was detrimental for tourism and signalled that global warming might soon threaten the existence of the country. When Gayoom began a fifth term as president in 1998, the environment and sea-level rises were his priorities.

The 1990s saw rapid development in Maldives – 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 access to basic healthcare, and secondary school centres had been established in the 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, to accommodate a growing population, work began on a new island near the capital, Hulhumale, built on reclaimed land an extra metre or so above sea level.

The Unexpected President

Mohammed Nasheed was born in Male in 1967, and grew up in a middle-class family in the capital. His academic skills allowed him to finish his education in Sri Lanka, and then later at a private school in England, before taking a degree in Maritime Studies at what is now Liverpool John Moores University. He returned to Maldives in 1989 to begin his career as a marine biologist, but instead quickly found himself in trouble with the increasingly authoritarian Gayoom regime, whose police force arrested and imprisoned Nasheed in 1990 for claiming in a newspaper article that the presidential election the year before had been rigged.

Having been named an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience in 1991, Nasheed was rarely left alone by Gayoom's government, who considered him a dangerous firebrand and potential threat to their rule in an otherwise largely placid populace that made little demand for democracy. Nasheed spent the 1990s in and out of jail, totalling over 20 stints in prison, including one single period in solitary confinement that lasted 18 months. Despite his virtual outlaw status, he managed to get elected as an MP in 1999, an incredible achievement at the time for someone outside the political establishment. In 2001, however, Nasheed was exiled to a remote island and then – almost comically – expelled from the People's Majlis some time later for non-attendance.

Following his two-and-a-half-year period of internal exile, Nasheed voluntarily left the country for Sri Lanka, where he founded the Maldivian Democratic Party in 2004. Nasheed returned to Maldives in 2005, on the eve of the Gayoom government's decision to allow the formation of political parties. Known then to locals by his nickname 'Anni', Nasheed was given a hero's welcome on his return to Maldives, for the first time giving people unhappy with the long rule of Gayoom an opposition figure around whom to coalesce.

Nasheed's Arrest and Detention

It's safe to say that Gayoom totally underestimated the popular appeal of Nasheed, and really believed he could be beaten at the ballot box even in free elections. Indeed, Nasheed's eventual triumph in the second round of the 2008 presidential election seemed to shock Nasheed's supporters and international observers as much as it did the ruling junta. But if Nasheed's popular appeal was misjudged, Nasheed himself also gravely underestimated the enmity that Gayoom's long-established network of family members, business associates and cronies had for him personally, upsetting as he was their very lucrative Maldivian apple cart. Nasheed's announcement that he wouldn't seek to prosecute any wrongdoers under Gayoom's rule must have been music to the ears of the former Gayoom allies who remained in positions of power in the new democratic Maldives.

Ultimately, these interconnected figures, loyal to the old regime, and resistant to the enormous changes that Nasheed was implementing, spelled the end of this brief but extraordinary era in Maldives' modern history. Following a campaign of protests that were widely regarded as a coup by international observers, Nasheed was replaced by Abdulla Yameen, half-brother to Gayoom. In March 2015, the former president was convicted of completely unfounded terrorism charges that were criticised worldwide and he was sentenced to 13 years in jail. In 2016 he was allowed to travel to the UK for surgery on his back, and during the trip he applied for political asylum, which was granted.

Uprising & Inundation

When a 19-year-old inmate at Maafushi Prison in South Male Atoll was beaten to death by guards in September 2003, a public outcry quickly followed. Evan Naseem’s family put their son’s brutally tortured corpse on display in Male and the capital spontaneously erupted in rioting. The People’s Majlis (parliament), also known as the Citizens’ Council, was stoned and police stations were burned by the mob. The NSS arrested and beat many rioters. In the same month, President Gayoom was renominated as the sole presidential candidate for the referendum by the Majlis, a body made up in no small part of Gayoom family members and people appointed by the president himself.

Realising that something was up, Gayoom made 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. Meanwhile, seeing that the hour for popular action had come, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was founded in Colombo, Sri Lanka by young democracy activist and former political prisoner Mohammed Nasheed.

Under pressure from colleagues, and in a move to outflank the growing reform movement, Gayoom launched his own reform program in 2004. His proposals included having multiple candidates in the presidential election, a two-term limit for the president and the legalisation of political parties.

Just as change appeared to be coming to the country, disaster struck. On 26 December 2004 the South Asian tsunami claimed thousands of lives across the continent and caused immense damage. The low-lying Maldives, with no land between them and Indonesia, took a direct hit, over 100 people were killed and dozens of islands and resorts were all but washed away. An estimated 15,000 people were displaced – a huge number in such a tiny country – and some islands were abandoned entirely and remain 'ghost islands' today. The country was exhausted, angry and ready for change.

Democracy Arrives

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. As no party won an overall majority in the first round, a run-off election was held on 29 October in which the Maldivian Democratic Party’s Mohammed Nasheed, with the other candidates throwing their weight behind him, took 53.65% of the vote, becoming 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. The government then embarked on a radical reform and liberalisation agenda with the following pledges: to make Maldives a carbon-neutral country within a decade; the creation of a sovereign wealth fund to buy land for the future of 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; the introduction of a national ferry network; the diversification of the tourism industry by ending the long-term policy of separating locals and travellers; and the creation of tax, pension and health-care systems. In just four years the Nasheed government dragged the country into the 21st century and made a name for Maldives as that rarest of things, a progressive Muslim state.

The 2012 Coup & Its Aftermath

All that changed on 7 February 2012, when President Nasheed resigned following a mutiny against his rule by first the police and then the army. As mandated in the constitution, the then vice-president, Dr Mohammed Waheed Hassan, assumed the mantle of the presidency, and the country’s new government was quickly recognised by all major powers as legitimate.

Over the next few days, however, it transpired that things weren’t as cut and dry as they appeared. The former president claimed that he had been pressured at gunpoint to resign, with various businessmen known to be close to his predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, named as ringleaders in what was soon being called a coup d’état by the world’s press.

The arrest triggered protests in Male in late January and early February 2012, culminating in the resignation of the president on 8 February, once both the police and the army changed sides and the game was clearly up. The country then effectively spent 2012 and most of 2013 in limbo, under the rule of Nasheed's former deputy, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, until a fraught presidential election in November 2013 awarded the presidency to Abdulla Yameen, who has held the office since then.

Nasheed remained politically active, despite a slow-moving trial against him for exceeding his powers as president in ordering the arrest of Abdulla Mohammed, but in March 2015, he was convicted of rather vague charges of 'terrorism' in a trial that was condemned as constitutionally flawed by observers.

The Legend of Thakurufaanu

As the man who led a successful revolution against foreign domination, and then as the leader of the newly liberated nation, Mohammed Thakurufaanu (sultan from 1573 to 1585) is Maldives’ national hero. Respectfully referred to as Bodu Thakurufaanu (bodu meaning ‘big’ or ‘great’), he is to Maldives what George Washington is to the USA. The story of his raid on the Portuguese headquarters in Male is part of Maldivian folklore, and known to every Maldivian child.

In his home island of Utheemu, Thakurufaanu’s family was known and respected as sailors, traders and kateebs (island chiefs). The family gained the trust of Viyazoaru, the Portuguese ruler of the four northern atolls, and was given the responsibility of disseminating orders, collecting taxes and carrying tribute to the Portuguese base in Sri Lanka. Unbeknown to Viyazoaru, Thakurufaanu and his brothers used their position to foster anti-Portuguese sentiment, recruit sympathisers and gain intelligence. It also afforded them the opportunity to visit southern India, where Thakurufaanu obtained a pledge from the rajah of Cannanore to assist in overthrowing the Portuguese rulers of Maldives.

Back on Utheemu, Thakurufaanu and his brothers built a boat with which to conduct an attack on Male. This sailing vessel, named Kalhuoffummi, has its own legendary status – it was said to be not only fast and beautiful, but to have almost magical qualities that enabled it to elude the Portuguese on guerrilla raids and reconnaissance missions.

For the final assault, they sailed south through the atolls by night, stopping by day to gather provisions and supporters. Approaching Male, they concealed themselves on a nearby island. They stole into the capital at night to make contact with supporters there and to assess the Portuguese defences. They were assisted in this by the local imam, who subtly changed the times of the morning prayer calls, tricking the Portuguese into sleeping late and giving Thakurufaanu extra time to escape after his night-time reconnaissance visits.

In the ensuing battle the Maldivians, with help from a detachment of Cannanore soldiers, defeated and killed some 300 Portuguese. The Thakurufaanu brothers then set about re-establishing a Maldivian administration under Islamic law. Soon after, Bodu Thakurufaanu became the new sultan, with the title of Al Sultan-ul Ghazi Mohammed Thakurufaanu Al Auzam Siree Savahitha Maharadhun, first Sultan of the third dynasty of the Kingdom of Maldives.