Ancient history and settlement
Comparative studies of the oral, linguistic and cultural traditions and customs of the Maldives indicate that the early settlers were Dravidian peoples from the ancient Tamilakam in the Sangam period (300 BC – 300 AD), most probably fishermen from the southwestern coasts of what is now the south of the Indian subcontinent and the western coasts of Sri Lanka. One such community is the Giraavaru people, descended from the ancient Tamils. They are mentioned in ancient legends and local folklore about the founding of the capital and royal rule in Malé.
A strong layer of Dravidian population and culture survives in Maldivian society, with a clear Dravidian-Malayalam substrate in the language, which also appears in place names, kinship names, poetry, dance and religious beliefs. The Malayali maritime culture led to the settlement of the Laccadives by the Malayali, and the Maldives were apparently seen as an extension of this archipelago. Some argue (based on the presence of Jat, Gujjar titles and Gotra names) that Sindhis also represented an early layer of migration. Seafaring from Debal began during the Indus Valley Civilisation. There are numerous references to this maritime trade in the Jatakas and Puranas; the use of similar traditional boat-building techniques in Northwest South Asia and the Maldives, and the presence of silver hallmarked coins from both regions, add weight. There is minor evidence of Southeast Asian settlers, who probably drifted from the main group of Austronesian reed boat migrants who settled Madagascar.
The earliest recorded history of the Maldives is marked by the arrival of the Sinhalese, descended from the exiled Magadha Prince Vijaya of the ancient city of Sinhapura. He and his group of several hundred landed in Sri Lanka, and some in the Maldives around 543 to 483 B.C. According to the Mahavansa, one of the ships sailing with Prince Vijaya, who went to Sri Lanka around 500 B.C., ran aground and reached an island called Mahiladvipika, which is identified with the Maldives. It is also said that at this time the people of Mahiladvipika travelled to Sri Lanka. Their settlement in Sri Lanka and the Maldives marks a significant change in demography and the development of the Indo-Aryan language Dhivehi, which is most similar in grammar, phonology and structure to Sinhala, and especially to the older Elu Prakrit, which has less Pali.
Alternatively, it is assumed that Vijaya and his clan came from western India – a claim supported by linguistic and cultural features and specific descriptions in the epics themselves, e.g. that Vijaya visited Bharukaccha (Bharuch in Gujarat) with his ship on the journey south.
Philostorgius, a Greek historian of late antiquity, wrote of a hostage under the Romans, from the island called Diva, believed to be the Maldives, who was baptised Theophilus. Theophilus was sent to convert the Himyarites to Christianity in the 350s and went from Arabia to his homeland; he returned to Arabia, visited Axum and settled in Antioch.
Buddhism came to the Maldives at the time of Emperor Ashoka’s expansion and became the dominant religion of the people of the Maldives by the 12th century AD. The ancient Maldivian kings promoted Buddhism, and the first Maldivian scriptures and artistic achievements, in the form of sophisticated sculpture and architecture, date from this period. Before adopting Buddhism as their way of life, the Maldivians had practised an ancient form of Hinduism, ritual traditions known as Śrauta, in the form of worshipping Surya (the ancient ruling caste was of Aadheetta or Suryavanshi origin).
The first archaeological survey of the remains of early cultures in the Maldives began with the work of H.C.P. Bell, a British commissioner of the Ceylon Civil Service. Bell was first ordered to the islands in late 1879 and returned to the Maldives twice to investigate ancient ruins. He investigated the ancient burial mounds, called havitta or ustubu (these names are derived from chaitiya and stupa) by Maldivians (Maldivian: ހަވިއްތަ), located on many of the atolls. Although Bell claimed that the ancient Maldivians followed Theravada Buddhism, many local Buddhist archaeological remains now in the Malé Museum actually also show elements of Mahayana and Vajrayana iconography.
In the early 11th century, Minicoy and Thiladhunmathi, and possibly other northern atolls, were conquered by the medieval Tamil Chola emperor Raja Raja Chola I, making them part of the Chola Empire.
According to a legend from Maldivian folklore, in the early 12th century AD, a medieval prince named Koimala, a nobleman of the lion race from Sri Lanka, sailed to the island of Rasgetheemu (literally “city of royalty” or figuratively “royal city”) in North Maalhosmadulu Atoll and from there to Malé and founded a kingdom. By this time, the Aadeetta (Sun) dynasty (the Suryavanshiruling caste) had ceased to rule Malé for some time, possibly due to invasions by the Cholas from South India in the 10th century. Koimala Kalou (Lord Koimala), who ruled as King Maanaabarana, was a king of the Homa (Lunar) dynasty (the Chandravanshi ruling caste), referred to by some historians as the House of Theemuge.
The rulers of the Homa (Moon) dynasty mixed with the Aaditta (Sun) dynasty. For this reason, until 1968, the official titles of Maldivian kings contained references to “kula sudha ira“, which means “descended from the moon and the sun”. There are no official records of the reign of the Aadeetta dynasty. Since the reign of Koimala, the Maldivian throne was also known as the Singaasana (Lion Throne). Before that, and in some situations since, it was also known as Saridhaaleys (Ivory Throne). Some historians credit Koimala with liberating the Maldives from Chola rule.
Several foreign travellers, mainly Arabs, had written about a kingdom in the Maldives ruled by a queen. This kingdom was older than the reign of Koimala. al-Idrisi, referring to earlier authors, mentions the name of one of the queens, Damahaar, who was a member of the Aadeetta (Sun) dynasty.
The conversion to Islam is mentioned in the edicts written on copper plates from the end of the 12th century AD.
The famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Batutta, who visited the Maldives in the 14th century, wrote that a Moroccan, a certain Abu Barakat the Berber, was said to have been responsible for the spread of Islam in the islands. Although this account was disputed in later sources, it does explain some crucial aspects of Maldivian culture. For example, Arabic was historically the main administrative language there, instead of Persian and Urdu, which were used in nearby Muslim states. Another link to North Africa was the Maliki school of jurisprudence, which was used in much of North Africa and was the official one in the Maldives until the 17th century.
Some scholars have suggested the possibility that Ibn Battuta misread Maldivian texts and have put forward another scenario in which this Abu Barakat could have been a native of Berbera, a major trading port on the north-western coast of Somalia. This scenario would also help explain the use of the Arabic language and the predominance of the Maliki school in the islands.
Another interpretation, held by some islanders, is that Abu Barakat was an Iranian from Tabriz. In Arabic script, the words al-Barbari and al-Tabrizi are very similar, which is due to the fact that Arabic at that time had several consonants that looked identical and could only be distinguished by the overall context (this has since changed with the addition of dots above or below the letters to clarify pronunciation – for example, the letter “B” in modern Arabic has a dot below it, while the letter “T” looks identical except that there are two dots above it). The first indication of an Iranian origin comes from an 18th century Persian text.
The Maldives was the first port of call for traders from Basra sailing to Sri Lanka or Southeast Asia. Bengal was one of the Maldives’ most important trading partners. The shell currency imported from the Maldives was used as legal tender in the Bengal Sultanate and Mughal Bengal, along with gold and silver. The Maldives received rice in exchange for cowrie shells. The Bengal-Maldivian cowrie shell trade was the largest shell currency trade network in history. In the Maldives, ships could take on board fresh water, fruits and the delicious red meat of the black bonito smoked in baskets, a delicacy exported to Sindh, China and Yemen. The people of the archipelago were described as gentle, civilised and hospitable. They produced brass utensils as well as fine cotton textiles, which were exported in the form of sarongs and turbans. These local industries must have been dependent on imported raw materials.
The other essential product of the Maldives was coconut fibre, the fibres of dried coconut shells. Hardened in pits, beaten, spun and then twisted into cordage and rope, the outstanding property of coir fibre is its resistance to salt water. It was used to stitch together and rig the dhows that sailed the Indian Ocean. Maldivian coir was exported to Sindh, China, Yemen and the Persian Gulf.
“It is stronger than hemp,” wrote Ibn Battuta, “and is used for sewing together the planks of Sindhi and Yemenite dhows, for this sea is rich in reefs, and if the planks were fastened with iron nails they would break into pieces when the ship struck a rock. The coconut fibres give the boat greater elasticity so that it doesn’t break.”
British Protectorate, 1887-1965
On 16 December 1887, the Sultan of the Maldives signed a treaty with the British Governor of Ceylont that turned the Maldives into a British protectorate, relinquishing the islands’ foreign sovereignty but retaining internal self-government. The British government promised military protection and non-interference in local administration in exchange for an annual tribute. The status of the islands was similar to that of other British protectorates in the Indian Ocean, including Zanzibar and the Trucial States.
In 1957, the British established an air base, RAF Gan, on the strategically important southernmost atoll of Addu, paying £2000 a year and employing hundreds of locals. This served as a staging post for British military flights to the Far East and Australia, replacing RAF Mauripur in Pakistan, which had been abandoned in 1956. The base was closed in 1976 as part of the larger British withdrawal of permanently stationed forces “east of Suez” initiated by the Labour government of Harold Wilson.
In 1953, there was a failed attempt to form a republic, but the sultanate survived. In 1959, the inhabitants of the three southernmost atolls protested against the government in protest against the centralism of Ibrahim Nasir. They formed the United Suvadive Republic and elected Abdullah Afeef as president and chose Hithadhoo as the capital of this republic.
Independence and Republic
In line with the broader British policy of decolonisation, an agreement was signed on 26 July 1965 on behalf of His Majesty the Sultan by Ibrahim Nasir Rannabandeyri Kilegefan, Prime Minister, and on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen by Sir Michael Walker, British Ambassador-designate to the Maldives, ending British responsibility for the defence and external affairs of the Maldives. The islands thus gained full political independence, with the ceremony taking place at the British High Commissioner’s Residence in Colombo. Thereafter, the Sultanate continued for another three years under Muhammad Fareed Didi, who declared himself King rather than Sultan.
On 15 November 1967, a vote was held in Parliament on whether the Maldives should remain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic. Of the 44 members of parliament, forty voted for a republic. On 15 March 1968, a national referendum was held on the issue. 93.34% of the participants voted for the establishment of a republic. The republic was proclaimed on 11 November 1968, ending the 853-year-old monarchy, which was replaced by a republic under the presidency of Ibrahim Nasir. As the king had little real power, this was seen as a cosmetic change and required few changes in government structures.
Tourism began to develop on the archipelago in the early 1970s. The first resort in the Maldives was Kurumba Maldives, which welcomed its first guests on 3 October 1972. The first accurate census took place in December 1977 and showed that 142,832 people lived in the Maldives. Political infighting in the 1970s between Nasir’s faction and other political figures led to the arrest and exile of elected Prime Minister Ahmed Zaki to a remote atoll in 1975. Economic decline followed the closure of the British air base in Gan and the collapse of the market for dried fish, a major export. With support for his government faltering, Nasir fled to Singapore in 1978 with millions of dollars from the national treasury.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom began his 30-year term as president in 1978, winning six consecutive elections without opposition. His election was seen as the beginning of a period of political stability and economic development, as Gayoom prioritised the development of the poorer islands. Tourism flourished and increased foreign contacts spurred development. Gayoom’s rule, however, was controversial. Some critics said Gayoom was an autocrat who suppressed dissent by restricting freedoms and showing political favouritism.
A series of coups (1980, 1983 and 1988) by Nasir supporters and business interests unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the government. While the first two attempts met with little success, the 1988 coup attempt involved a mercenary force of about 80 from the militant Tamil group PLOTE, who seized the airport and made Gayoom flee from house to house until the intervention of 1600 Indian troops flown into Malé restored order.
A coup in November 1988 was led by Muhammadu Ibrahim Lutfee, a small businessman. On the night of 3 November 1988, the Indian Air Force picked up a group of paratroopers from Agra and flew them over 2,000 kilometres to the Maldives. The Indian paratroopers landed at Hulule, secured the airfield and restored government rule in Malé within hours. The Indian Navy was also involved in the short, bloodless operation, which was called “Operation Cactus”.
On 26 December 2004, following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, the Maldives were devastated by a tsunami. Only nine islands were spared from the floods, while fifty-seven islands suffered severe damage to critical infrastructure, fourteen islands had to be completely evacuated and six islands were destroyed. Another twenty-one resort islands had to be closed due to severe damage. Total damage was estimated at more than US$400 million, equivalent to about 62% of GDP. According to reports, 102 Maldivians and 6 foreigners died as a result of the tsunami. The destructive effect of the waves on the low-lying islands was mitigated by the fact that there was no continental shelf or land mass on which the waves could gain height. The highest waves were reported to be 4.3 m (14 feet) high.
During the later part of Gayoom’s rule, independent political movements emerged in the Maldives, challenging the then ruling Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party) and demanding democratic reforms.
The dissident journalist Mohamed Nasheed rose up to challenge Gayoom’s autocratic rule. Nasheed was imprisoned a total of 16 times under Gayoom’s rule. He maintained his activism and founded the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in exile in 2003. His activism, as well as the civil unrest that year, put pressure on Gayoom to allow gradual political reforms.
These movements led to a significant change in the political structure. In 2008, a new constitution was adopted and the first direct presidential elections were held, won by Mohamed Nasheed and Mohammed Waheed Hassan (as vice president) in the second round. In the 2009 general elections, President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party received the most votes (30.81%) and won 26 seats, although the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party won the most seats (28) with 24.62% of the vote.
President Mohamed Nasheed’s government faced many challenges, including the huge debt left by the previous government, the economic downturn after the 2004 tsunami, excessive spending (by overprinting the local currency rufiyaa) during his time in power, unemployment, corruption and increasing drug use.
Taxation of goods was introduced in the country for the first time and import duties were reduced on many goods and services. Social benefits were provided for people over 65, single parents and people with special needs. On 10 November 2008, Nasheed announced plans to use tourism revenues to establish a sovereign wealth fund that could be used to buy land elsewhere so that the people of the Maldives could relocate if rising sea levels due to climate change inundate the country. The government has reportedly considered locations in Sri Lanka and India because of cultural and climatic similarities, as well as Australia.
On 23 December 2011, the opposition organised a mass symposium with up to 20,000 people in the name of protecting Islam, which they felt the Nasheed government could not maintain in the country. The mass event became the basis of a campaign that led to social unrest within the capital.
On 16 January 2012, the Maldivian military unconstitutionally arrested Judge Abdulla Mohamed, the chief judge of the Maldives Criminal Court, on orders from the Ministry of Interior, on charges that he was blocking the prosecution of corruption and human rights cases against allies of former President Gayoom. On 7 February, Nasheed ordered the police and army to suppress the anti-government protesters, allegedly asking them to use force against the people. The police came out to protest against the government instead.
President Mohamed Nasheed resigned by letter on 7 February 2012 and then informed Maldivians of his resignation in a public televised address. Nasheed later told foreign media that he was deposed in a military coup led by President Waheed. There were disputes about what exactly happened that day. Nasheed’s vice-president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, was sworn in as president in accordance with the constitution in the Peoples majlis before the Chief Justice.
Many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, quickly dropped Nasheed and instead supported his successor. (The United States withdrew in late 2012 in response to widespread criticism). On 23 February 2012, the Commonwealth suspended the Maldives from its democracy and human rights watchdog while the ouster was investigated, and backed Nasheed’s call for elections before the end of 2012.
On 8 October, Nasheed was arrested after failing to appear in court to face charges that he ordered the illegal arrest of a judge while in office. However, his supporters claim that this arrest was politically motivated to prevent him from campaigning for the 2013 presidential elections.
In March 2013, former President Nasheed was convicted under the country’s terrorism laws for ordering the arrest of an allegedly corrupt judge in 2012 and jailed for 13 years.
Recently (Oct 2015), Nasheed appealed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, suggesting that Modi has the capacity to “extricate” the Maldives from the “mess we are in”. The Maldives’ international partners, including the EU, the US, the UK and the UN, had said his hasty trial was seriously flawed after a UN panel ruled in favour of the former president. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for his immediate release.
At the time Nasheed was detained, President Mohammed Waheed Hassan announced that a presidential election would be held in 2013.
The elections at the end of 2013 were fiercely contested. Former President Mohammed Nasheed received the most votes in the first round. Contrary to the assessment of international election observers, the Supreme Court invoked irregularities and annulled it. In the end, the opposition won a majority. Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of former President Gayoom, took over the presidency.
Yameen made a foreign policy shift towards increased engagement with China and established diplomatic relations between the two countries. Yameen used Islam as an identity politics tool, presenting religious mobilisation as a solution to perceived Western attempts to undermine Maldivian national sovereignty. Yameen’s policy of combining Islam with anti-Western rhetoric represented a new development.
On 28 September 2015, there was an assassination attempt on President Abdulla Yameen as he returned from Saudi Arabia after the Hajj pilgrimage. As his speedboat docked in Male, there was an explosion on board. Amid screams, the right door of the boat fell on the jetty and there was heavy smoke. Three people were injured, including his wife, but the president escaped unharmed.
On 24 October 2015, Maldives Vice President Ahmed Adheeb was arrested at the airport after returning from a conference in China, as the explosion was directed against the president. 17 of Adheeb’s supporters were also arrested for “public order offences”. The government launched a broader crackdown on political dissent. Although the popular image of the Maldives is that of a holiday paradise, radicalised youth are recruiting in large numbers to fight for Islamic State fighters in the Middle East.
On 4 November 2015, President Abdulla Yameen imposed a 30-day state of emergency ahead of a planned anti-government rally.
On 5 November 2015 (the next day), the People’s Majlis decided, in accordance with the state of emergency law issued by the President, to expedite the process of removing Vice-President Ahmed Adeeb through a vote of no confidence submitted by the PPM Parliament than the deadline originally foreseen. As a result, the Majlis passed the no-confidence vote with a majority of 61 MPs in favour, removing Adeeb from the post of Vice President.
On 10 November 2015, President Yameen lifted the state of emergency on the grounds that there was no longer an imminent threat in the country.