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Maldives - History

The early history of Maldives is obscure. The cultural and linguistic data convey a complex history of migration and settlement into the area that might be difficult to disentangle. This uncertainty about Maldivian history remains without additional reliable historical data. Many of these theories are still a matter of controversy and the Maldives still holds many more secrets about its past which are yet to be unearthed.

Archaeological finds indicate that the Maldives was inhabited as early as 1500 BC but much of the country's origin is lost in time due to a lack of surviving written records. However, there are all kinds of fascinating folklores and myths about the history of the Maldives. According to Maldivian legend, a Sinhalese prince named KoiMale was stranded with his bride -- daughter of the king of Sri Lanka -- in a Maldivian lagoon and stayed on to rule as the first sultan.

Inhabitants of some islands claim a partly different ancestry than the widely acknowledged South Indian origin. Some islanders of Feridhoo claim to partly descend from African immigrants, which might explain the African influence that is still found in the islands' musical tradition.

It is believed that the most important factor that contributed to the first settlement of people in the Maldives is its geographical location. Large ruins and other archaeological remains found in the islands including those bordering the equatorial channel and the One and a Half Degree channel bear testimony to the fact that people of antiquity had indeed stumbled upon the country during their travels. It is believed that permanent settlements were established in around 500 BC by Aryan immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. Many customs, traditional practices and superstitious beliefs that still prevail in the country also attest to the influence of the early Dravidian culture of the Maldives.

Historians have established that by the fourth century AD Theravada Buddhism originating from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) became the dominant religion of the people of Maldives. Some scholars believe that the name "Maldives" derives from the Sanskrit maladvipa, meaning "garland of islands."

Although it is most probable that early Maldivians were Buddhist or Hindus migrating from the Indian subcontinent, the archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl, who carried out extensive archaeological research in the Maldives and contributed significantly to theories of the origins of the country, stated that some of the figures unearthed from the ancient mounds bore a striking resemblance to the figures he had investigated on Easter island in the Pacific Ocean.

In the mid-1980s, the Maldivian government allowed the noted explorer and expert on early marine navigation, Thor Heyerdahl, to excavate ancient sites. Heyerdahl studied the ancient mounds, called hawitta by the Maldivians, found on many of the atolls. Some of his archaeological discoveries of stone figures and carvings from pre-Islamic civilizations are today exhibited in a side room of the small National Museum on Male.

Heyerdahl's research indicates that as early as 2,000 BC Maldives lay on the maritime trading routes of early Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indus Valley civilizations. Heyerdahl believed that early sun-worshipping seafarers, called the Redin, first settled on the islands. Even today, many mosques in Maldives face the sun and not Mecca, lending credence to this theory. Because building space and materials were scarce, successive cultures constructed their places of worship on the foundations of previous buildings. Heyerdahl thus surmises that these sun-facing mosques were built on the ancient foundations of the Redin culture temples.

The accounts of travellers who had stopped over for supplies and due to shipwrecks (as the Maldives is located along the ancient marine trade routes from the West to the East) serve as useful guides to the history of these small islands. Cowrie shells were used as one of the oldest forms of currency amongst traders who traversed the region, and the Maldives offered one of the most plentiful supplies of these shells.

Over the centuries, the islands have been visited and their development influenced by sailors from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean littorals. Mopla pirates from the Malabar Coast -- present-day Kerala state in India -- harassed the islands. Among the travellers were the Chinese historian Ma Huan and the famous Arab traveler IbnBatuta. It is also understood that the Maldivians themselves ventured far beyond their own shores; Pliny, for example states that Maldivian emissaries bore gift to the Roman Emperor.

The ancient Silk Road had linked China and Maldives for centuries. The famous Chinese navigator Zheng He has led ships to visit the Maldives twice in early 15th century and Maldivian Sultans also sent several delegations to China during the same time. Even today, there are numerous Chinese ancient porcelain and coins on display at the National Museum of Maldives, serving as a strong testament to the historical connections between China and Maldives via the ancient maritime Silk Road.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese subjugated and ruled the islands for 15 years (1558-73) before being driven away by the warrior-patriot Muhammad Thakurufar Al-Azam.

The country was never part of the British Empire but from 1887 to 1965 it was classed as a Protectorate of Great Britain before becoming a republic. Although governed as an independent Islamic sultanate for most of its history from 1153 to 1968, Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 until July 26, 1965, which is now annually marked as Independence Day.

In 1953, there was a brief, abortive attempt at a republican form of government, after which the sultanate was re-imposed. Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to operate for another 3 years. On November 11, 1968, it was abolished and replaced by a republic, and the country assumed its present name.

Embracing Islam in 1153 AD

The written history of Maldives begins with the countrys Buddhist monarch embracing Islam in 1153 AD. Because the Muslim religion prohibits images portraying gods, local interest in ancient statues of the pre-Islamic period is not only slight but at times even hostile; villagers have been known to destroy such statues recently unearthed.

Early mosque designs in the Maldives echoed the temple designs of India and Sri Lanka, and it was not until the 19th century that people were able to travel easily to Mecca and bring back more classical designs. The Eid Mosque represents the older style, in strong contrast to more modern places of worship in Male'. The 18th century Eid Mosque is the most finely carved of the four coral mosques in Male', the capital of the Maldives. The unique features of the mosque, probably built on the site of an ancient Buddhist temple, reflect the history and geology of the Indian Ocean archipelago.

The interest of Middle Eastern peoples in Maldives resulted from its strategic location and its abundant supply of cowrie shells, a form of currency widely used throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast since ancient times. Middle Eastern seafarers had just begun to take over the Indian Ocean trade routes in the tenth century AD and found Maldives to be an important link in those routes.

The importance of the Arabs as traders in the Indian Ocean by the twelfth century AD may partly explain why the last Buddhist king of Maldives converted to Islam in the year 1153. The king thereupon adopted the Muslim title and name of Sultan Muhammad al Adil, initiating a series of six dynasties consisting of eighty-four sultans and sultanas that lasted until 1932 when the sultanate became elective. The person responsible for this conversion was a Sunni Muslim visitor named Abu al Barakat. His venerated tomb now stands on the grounds of Hukuru Mosque, or miski, in the capital of Male. Built in 1656, this is the oldest mosque in Maldives. Arab interest in Maldives also was reflected in the residence there in the 1340s of the well-known North African traveler Ibn Battutah.

In 1558 the Portuguese established themselves on Maldives, which they administered from Goa on India's west coast. Fifteen years later, a local guerrilla leader named Muhammad Thakurufaan organized a popular revolt and drove the Portuguese out of Maldives. This event is now commemorated as National Day, and a small museum and memorial center honor the hero on his home island of Utim in South Tiladummati Atoll.

The British Era - 1887 to 1965

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch, who had replaced the Portuguese as the dominant power in Ceylon, established hegemony over Maldivian affairs without involving themselves directly in local matters, which were governed according to centuries-old Islamic customs. However, the British expelled the Dutch from Ceylon in 1796 and included Maldives as a British protected area. The status of Maldives as a British protectorate was officially recorded in an 1887 agreement in which the sultan accepted British influence over Maldivian external relations and defense. The British had no presence, however, on the leading island community of Male. They left the islanders alone, as had the Dutch, with regard to internal administration to continue to be regulated by Muslim traditional institutions.

During the British era from 1887 to 1965, Maldives continued to be ruled under a succession of sultans. The sultans were hereditary until 1932 when an attempt was made to make the sultanate elective, thereby limiting the absolute powers of sultans. At that time, a constitution was introduced for the first time, although the sultanate was retained for an additional twenty-one years. Maldives remained a British crown protectorate until 1953 when the sultanate was suspended and the First Republic was declared under the short-lived presidency of Muhammad Amin Didi. This first elected president of the country introduced several reforms. While serving as prime minister during the 1940s, Didi nationalized the fish export industry. As president he is remembered as a reformer of the education system and a promoter of women's rights. Muslim conservatives in Male eventually ousted his government, and during a riot over food shortages, Didi was beaten by a mob and died on a nearby island.

Beginning in the 1950s, political history in Maldives was largely influenced by the British military presence in the islands. In 1954 the restoration of the sultanate perpetuated the rule of the past. Two years later, Britain obtained permission to reestablish its wartime airfield on Gan in the southern-most Addu Atoll. Maldives granted the British a 100-year lease on Gan that required them to pay 2,000 a year, as well as some forty-four hectares on Hitaddu for radio installations. In 1957, however, the new prime minister, Ibrahim Nasir, called for a review of the agreement in the interest of shortening the lease and increasing the annual payment.

But Nasir, who was theoretically responsible to then sultan Muhammad Farid Didi, was challenged in 1959 by a local secessionist movement in the southern atolls that benefited economically from the British presence on Gan. This group cut ties with the Maldives government and formed an independent state with Abdulla Afif Didi as president. The short-lived state (1959-62), called the United Suvadivan Republic, had a combined population of 20,000 inhabitants scattered in the atolls then named Suvadiva since renamed North Huvadu and South Huvadu and Addu and Fua Mulaku. In 1962 Nasir sent gunboats from Male with government police on board to eliminate elements opposed to his rule. Abdulla Afif Didi fled to the then British colony of Sey- chelles, where he was granted political asylum.

Meanwhile, in 1960 Maldives allowed Britain to continue to use both the Gan and the Hitaddu facilities for a thirty-year period, with the payment of 750,000 over the period of 1960 to 1965 for the purpose of Maldives' economic development.

Independent Maldives - 1965

On July 26, 1965, Maldives gained independence under an agreement signed with Britain. The British government retained the use of the Gan and Hitaddu facilities. In a national referendum in March 1968, Maldivians abolished the sultanate and established a republic. The Second Republic was proclaimed in November 1968 under the presidency of Ibrahim Nasir, who had increasingly dominated the political scene.

Under the new constitution, Nasir was elected indirectly to a four-year presidential term by the Majlis (legislature). He appointed Ahmed Zaki as the new prime minister. In 1973 Nasir was elected to a second term under the constitution as amended in 1972, which extended the presidential term to five years and which also provided for the election of the prime minister by the Majlis. In March 1975, newly elected prime minister Zaki was arrested in a bloodless coup and was banished to a remote atoll. Observers suggested that Zaki was becoming too popular and hence posed a threat to the Nasir faction.

During the 1970s, the economic situation in Maldives suffered a setback when the Sri Lankan market for Maldives' main export of dried fish collapsed. Adding to the problems was the British decision in 1975 to close its airfield on Gan in line with its new policy of abandoning defense commitments east of the Suez Canal. A steep commercial decline followed the evacuation of Gan in March 1976. As a result, the popularity of Nasir's government suffered. Maldives's twenty-year period of authoritarian rule under Nasir abruptly ended in 1978 when he fled to Singapore. A subsequent investigation revealed that he had absconded with millions of dollars from the state treasury.

Elected to replace Nasir for a five-year presidential term in 1978 was Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a former university lecturer and Maldivian ambassador to the United Nations (UN). The peaceful election was seen as ushering in a period of political stability and economic development in view of Gayoom's priority to develop the poorer islands. In 1978 Maldives joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Tourism also gained in importance to the local economy, reaching more than 120,000 visitors in 1985. The local populace appeared to benefit from increased tourism and the corresponding increase in foreign contacts involving various development projects.

Despite coup attempts in 1980, 1983, and 1988, Gayoom's popularity remained strong, allowing him to win three more presidential terms. In the 1983, 1988, and 1993 elections, Gayoom received more than 95 percent of the vote. Although the government did not allow any legal opposition, Gayoom was opposed in the early 1990s by Islamists (also seen as fundamentalists) who wanted to impose a more traditional way of life and by some powerful local business leaders.

Whereas the 1980 and 1983 coup attempts against Gayoom's presidency were not considered serious, the third coup attempt in November 1988 alarmed the international community. About eighty armed Tamil mercenaries landed on Male before dawn aboard speedboats from a freighter. Disguised as visitors, a similar number had already infiltrated Male earlier. Although the mercenaries quickly gained the nearby airport on Hulele, they failed to capture President Gayoom, who fled from house to house and asked for military intervention from India, the United States, and Britain.

Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi immediately dispatched 1,600 troops by air to restore order in Male. Less than twelve hours later, Indian paratroopers arrived on Hulele, causing some of the mercenaries to flee toward Sri Lanka in their freighter. Those unable to reach the ship in time were quickly rounded up. Nineteen people reportedly died in the fighting, and several taken hostage also died. Three days later, an Indian frigate captured the mercenaries on their freighter near the Sri Lankan coast. In July 1989, a number of the mercenaries were returned to Maldives to stand trial. Gayoom commuted the death sentences passed against them to life imprisonment.

The 1988 coup had been headed by a once prominent Maldivian businessperson named Abdullah Luthufi, who was operating a farm on Sri Lanka. Ex-president Nasir denied any involvement in the coup. In fact, in July 1990 President Gayoom officially pardoned Nasir in absentia in recognition of his role in obtaining Maldives' independence.





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