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  :: home > country guide > history
History of Maldives

The origin of the first settlers of the Maldives still remains a mystery. The historians date early settlers back to 5th century BC with the Aryan immigrants coming from the neighbouring countries India and Sri Lanka. The Maldivian language is said to be Indo-Aryan with influences from Sinhalese, Tamil, Sanskrit, Persian, Urdhu and Arabic. It is believed that Hinduism existed before Buddhism. The Maldivians were practising Buddhism until AD 1153, when a learned scholar converted the king to Islam. The exact name and origins of this scholar is an ongoing debate. Some are of the opinion that he was a Moroccan traveller named Sheikh. Abul Barakaath Yoosuful Barubaree. Others say that he was from Persia and known as Sheikh Yoosuf Shamsudheenul Thabreyzi. Mr Mohammed Ibrahim Luthufi, an acclaimed contemporary historian and researcher, claims that the name of the person who converted Maldivians to Islam was Sheikh Aburikaab Yoosuf Thabreyzi.

Hassan Nooreddine II Iskander King of Twelve Thousand Isles and Sultan of the Maldives
Hassan Nooreddine II Iskander King of Twelve Thousand Isles and Sultan of the Maldives

Since the conversion to Islam, the Maldives boasts of a recorded history that is rich and colourful. The system of government was a monarchy with Sultans as sovereigns while Sultanas or queens ruled on rare occasions. Traders from Arabia, India, Sri Lanka and Persia visited the Maldives to exchange goods. Slaves were also brought from Africa. Quite often, sailors were shipwrecked in the treacherous reefs of Maldives. These visitors contributed much to the language and culture of the Maldives. However, the visitors' influence did not change the identity of the country as a secluded haven virtually unknown to the rest of the world.

The abundance of cowry shells, coir rope and ambergris in Maldives attracted Portuguese interest in the country during the 16th century. Consequently the Portuguese launched attacks against Maldives. Their attempts were in vain until a better equipped and organised fleet attacked the capital Malé. In 1558 they seized control of the country, after defeating Ali 6th, the reigning Sultan. Since then, they administered Maldives from Goa in India but had their armed forces and a leader stationed in Maldives. Muhammad Thakurufaanu, from the island of Utheemu in Thiladhunmathi Atoll, waged an effective resistance against the invaders. In 1573 after fierce guerrilla warfare Muhammad Thakurufaanu and his compatriots defeated the Portuguese invaders. Muhammad Thakurufaanu was offered the throne and remains a revered national hero.

The Portuguese did not allow the Maldivians to relax even after their 1573 debacle. The country had a restless time fighting off the colonial pursuits and had to strengthen its defence by building forts and acquiring more arms. Nevertheless there was a substantial time period before the country was captured by an invading force. Malabari pirates from the nearby south Indian coast finally succeeded in 1752 in seizing the Maldivan throne in the capital, Malé. They abducted the Sultan and took him to their country and placed some soldiers to administer Maldives. Only four months later Maldives regained control under the leadership of Muleege Hassan Maniku or Dhon Bandaarain who belonged to a family from Huraa in Malé Atoll.

The British colonial ambitions in the Indian Ocean had their effects on Maldives. They recognised the strategic location of Maldives and the prospect of Maldives being under any other colonial power was unacceptable to them. It was in a period of uncertainty, political rivalry and turmoil in the Maldives that the British offered Maldives a treaty, which was to become a watershed in Maldivian history. Some Maldivian politicians also needed British co-operation to suit their ambitions. It was in this atmosphere of instability that the Maldives went into the agreement with British in 1887. The British pledged to protect the Maldives from any foreign aggression while the Maldives in turn agreed not to collaborate with any other foreign power without British consent. The British were also not to interfere with the internal affairs of the Maldives.

Islam has influence on everyday life of Maldivians
Islam has influence on everyday life of Maldivians - Photo by © Muha

Historians differ in their opinions as to the extent of the independence that Maldives enjoyed under the status of a British Protectorate. It was evident that the Maldives was not a colony per se, however the government of the Maldives sought the advice of British Governor in Ceylon on major issues.

A written constitution did not exist in Maldives till 1932 and the customs and traditions along with Islamic Shariah formed the Law. The sultans usually consulted a group of advisors or bodun who included his ministers and the Fandiyaaru or Chief Justice. The Islamic scholars usually exercised much influence in the government affairs but quite often they were replaced when the Kings were at odds with them. The hereditary system continued to exist but in many occasions the helm of power shifted from one family to the other following internal uprisings and the demise of kings. A constitution was introduced in 1932 after the emergence of a new educated elite. The new constitution, which provided for a People's Assembly of 47 members, did not survive long. It was literally torn apart by the public and the reigning Sultan Mohammed Shamsudheen 3rd was dethroned shortly thereafter in 1934. The Sultan was believed to have used exceeded his legal powers. A new constitution was formed in 1937.

In 1948 the existing agreement between the Maldives and the British were renewed.

In 1953 the Maldives changed from a monarchy to a Republic. Mr Mohammed Amin Didi was the first President of the Maldives. He was a popular politician who had won a referendum held to determine the type of government that the Maldives should have. However, the Republic was short-lived. After a mere eight months Amin Didi was overthrown and a Sultanate was formed once again. The people were outraged because of the prevailing food shortages and the total ban of tobacco by Amin Didi. The Second World War caused famine that continued even in the early 1950s. Against this backdrop it was quite easy to manipulate and mobilise the ignorant masses for political ends by Amin Didi's rivals.

Since the failure of the First Republic, the Maldives was a Sultanate until 1968. The intervening period saw the rule of only one king. Sultan Mohammed Fareedh was to be the last monarch of the Maldives.

During the Second World War, British built a military base in Gan of Addu Atoll and Kelaa of Thiladhunmathi Atoll. They evacuated the bases soon after the war. However, British interest in the Maldives revived during the late 1950s. The British were successful to conclude an agreement with the Prime Minister Ibrahim Ali Didi for the lease of Gan in Addu for 100 years. This agreement signed in 1956 provided Gan, located in the southern tip of the Maldives, as an airfield for the British. It also included the provision of a part of Hithadhoo in Addu Atoll as a radio communication centre for the British.

The agreement was heavily criticised in the Maldives, and led to the resignation of the Prime Minister. He was succeeded by Mr Ibrahim Nasir who sought to solve the problem regarded by the Maldivians as an issue endangering the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Maldives. However, the government of Mr Nasir was to face more serious problems that threatened the integrity of the country. While the British developed Gan as a base for Royal Air Force, the people of the three southern most atolls revolted against the government of Mr Nasir. They formed a separate government and declared the 'United Suvadheeb Republic' in 1959. The British support for them was suspected by the government. The grievances of the people of these three atolls against the government were not entirely unjustified. For centuries, the people of the Huvadhoo, Fua Mulah and Addu Atolls sailed in their wooden vessels odi to Sri Lanka and India and exchanged goods. They travelled independently to these countries without stopping over at Malé; hence there was no government control over these trade affairs. However, Mr Nasir introduced measures which were unfavourable to the three southern most atolls including the prohibition of direct sail to the neighbouring countries without clearing through Malé. The workers in Addu who could have enjoyed the benefits of direct payment from the British were also disappointed with the arrangement in which they were paid through the government in Malé. They believed that the government controlled the exchange rates to their disadvantage.

The separatist uprising was brought to an end by the government of the Maldives in 1963 in some atolls with brute force. However, the unease and hostility continued. The government of the Maldives negotiated with the British for a diplomatic solution. Maldives demanded more independence than the existing agreements provided for. In 1960 an agreement was signed reducing the period of British stay in Addu to 30 years. The British finally agreed to give independence to the Maldives and an agreement was signed in 1965. This historic agreement was signed on 25 July 1965 in Sri Lanka. However, the British presence in Addu Atoll continued till 1976.

In 1968 the monarchy was ended and a Republic wasformed. On 11 November 1968, Mr Ibrahim Nasir was proclaimed the First President of the Second Republic. In 1978 Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom was elected the President of the Maldives. He has been the President for the past 26 years.


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