The origin of the first settlers of the Maldives still remains a mystery and little is known before the conversion to Islam in 1153 as a result the pre-Muslim period is full of heroic myths and folk tales. No archaeological remains of these early Maldivians were ever found. Their buildings were probably built of wood, palm fronds and other perishable materials, which would have quickly decayed in the salt and wind of the tropical climate. Moreover, chiefs and headmen did not reside in elaborate stone palaces, nor did their religion require the construction of large temples or compounds.
Since the earliest recorded times, the Maldives Islands wereruled by kings known as sultans and occasionally queens. Historically Maldives has had a strategic importance because of its location on the major marine routes of the Indian Ocean. Maldives’ nearest neighbor is Sri Lanka followed by India, both countries have had cultural and economic ties with Maldives for over centuries. During these early times the Maldives had an important role by providing cowrie shells, then used as a currency throughout most parts of Asia and parts of the East African coast.
Conversion to Islam
The interest of Middle Eastern peoples in Maldives resulted from its strategic location and its abundant supply of cowrie shells, a form of currency that was widely used throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast since ancient times. This era saw Middle Eastern seafarers begin their quest to take over the Indian Ocean trade routes in the tenth century A.D. and identified Maldives to be an important link in those routes.
The importance of the Arabs as traders in the Indian Ocean by the twelfth century A.D. may lead to the explanation why the last Buddhist king of Maldives converted to Islam in the year 1153. The king after converting to Islam adopted the Muslim title and name of Sultan (besides the old Divehi title of Maha Radun or Ras Kilege or Rasgefanu) Muhammad al Adil. This very first Sultan of the country was responsible for initiating a series of six Islamic dynasties consisting of eighty-four sultans and sultanas that lasted until 1932 when the sultanate became elective through popular voting.
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 Malé. 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.
It is worth noticing that compared to the other areas of South Asia, the conversion of the Maldives to Islam happened relatively late. Arab Traders had converted populations in the Malabar coast since the 7th century, and the Arab invader Muhammad Bin Qasim had converted large swathes of Sindh to Islam at about the same time. The Maldives remained a Buddhist kingdom for another five hundred years (perhaps the westernmost Buddhist country) until the conversion to Islam.
Era of colonial powers
In 1558 the Portuguese established a small garrison with a Viador (Viyazoru), or overseer of a factory (trading post) in the Maldives, which they administered from their main colony in Goa. It is said that they tried to impose Christianity on the locals. Thus, fifteen years later, a local leader named Muhammad Thakurufaanu Al-Azam and his brother 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 Utheemu on South Thiladhummathi Atoll.
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 defence. The British had no presence, however, on the leading island community of Malé. They left the islanders alone, as had the Dutch, with regard to internal administration to continue to be regulated by Muslim traditional institutions.
Britain got entangled with the Maldives as a result of domestic disturbances which targeted the settler community of Bora merchants who were British subjects. Rivalry between two dominant families, the Athireege clan and the Kakaage clan was resolved with former winning the favour of the British authorities in Ceylon, who concluded a Protection Agreement in 1887. During the British era, which lasted until 1965, Maldives continued to be ruled under a succession of sultans. It was a period during which the Sultan’s authority and powers were increasingly and decisively taken over by the Chief Minister, much to the chagrin of the British Governor-General who continued to deal with the ineffectual Sultan. Consequently, Britain encouraged the development of a constitutional monarchy, and the first Constitution was proclaimed in 1932. However, the new arrangements favoured neither the aging Sultan nor the wily Chief Minister, but rather a young crop of British-educated reformists. As a result, angry mobs were instigated against the Constitution which was publicly torn up. 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 Malé 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, the United Kingdom obtained permission to re-establish its wartime airfield on Gan in the southernmost 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 440,000 square metres on Hithadhoo 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 Abdullah Afif as president.
The short-lived state (1959-63), called the United Suvadive Republic, had a combined population of 20,000 inhabitants scattered in the southernmost atolls Huvadu, Addu and Fua Mulaku. In 1962 Nasir sent gunboats from Malé with government police on board to eliminate elements opposed to his rule. One year later the Suvadive republic was scrapped and Abdulla Afif went into exile to the Seychelles, where he died recently.
Meanwhile, in 1960 Maldives allowed the United Kingdom to continue to use both the Gan and the Hithadhoo 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.
On July 26, 1965, Maldives gained independence under an agreement signed with United Kingdom. The British government retained the use of the Gan and Hithadhoo facilities. In a national referendum in March 1968, Maldivians abolished the sultanate and established a republic.