Ancient history and settlement
The first Maldivians did not leave any archaeological artifacts. 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 or headmen did not reside in elaborate stone palaces, nor did their religion require the construction of large temples or compounds.
Comparative studies of Maldivian oral, linguistic and cultural traditions and customs confirm that the first settlers were people from the southern shores of the neighboring Indian subcontinent, including the Giraavaru people mentioned in ancient legends and local folklore about the establishment of the capital and kingly rule in Malé.
A strong underlying layer of Dravidian population and culture survives in Maldivian society, with a clear Tamil-Malayalam substratum in the language, which also appears in place names, kinship terms, poetry, dance, and religious beliefs. Malabari seafaring culture led to the settlement of the Islands by Malayali seafarers.
The earliest written history of the Maldives was marked by the arrival of Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka and the Maldives (Mahiladvipika) circa 543 to 483 BC, as reported in the Mahavansa. Their settlement marks a significant change in demographics and the development of the Indo-Aryan language Dhivehi language.
Isdhoo Lōmāfānu is the oldest copper-plate book to have been discovered in the Maldives to date. The book was written in AD 1194 (590 AH) in the Evēla form of the Divehi akuru, during the reign of Siri Fennaadheettha Mahaa Radun (Dhinei Kalaminja).
Despite being just mentioned briefly in most history books, the 1,400-year-long Buddhist period has a foundational importance in the history of the Maldives. It was during this period that the culture of the Maldives both developed and flourished, a culture which survives today. The Maldivian language, the first Maldive scripts, the architecture, the ruling institutions, the customs and manners of the Maldivians originated at the time when the Maldives were a Buddhist kingdom.
Buddhism probably spread to the Maldives in the 3rd century BC at the time of Emperor Ashoka's expansion, and became the dominant religion of the people of the Maldives until the 12th century AD. The ancient Maldivian Kings promoted Buddhism, and the first Maldive writings and artistic achievements, in the form of highly developed sculpture and architecture, are from that period. Nearly all archaeological remains in the Maldives are from Buddhist stupas and monasteries, and all artifacts found to date display characteristic Buddhist iconography.
Buddhist (and Hindu) temples were Mandala shaped, they are oriented according to the four cardinal points, the main gate being towards the east.
Local historian Hassan Ahmed Maniku counted as many as 59 islands with Buddhist archaeological sites in a provisional list he published in 1990.
A plaque in Juma Mosque, Malé, Maldives, on which Tabrezi's name is written. Tabrezi was a Persian who is said to have converted Maldives in 12th century AD to Islam.
The importance of the Arabs as traders in the Indian Ocean by the 12th century may partly explain why the last Buddhist king of Maldives Dhovemi converted to Islam in the year 1153 (or 1193), adopting the Muslim title of Sultan Muhammad al Adil, and initiating a series of six Islamic dynasties that lasted until 1932 when the sultanate became elective. The formal title of the sultan up to 1965 was, Sultan of Land and Sea, Lord of the twelve-thousand islands and Sultan of the Maldives which came with the style Highness.
The person traditionally deemed responsible for this conversion in 1153, was a Somali Muslim visitor named Abu'l Barakat al-Barbari also known as Aw Barkhadle, according to the story told to Ibn Battutah, who goes on to say a mosque was built with the inscription: 'The Sultan Ahmad Shanurazah accepted Islam at the hand of Abu'l Barakat al-Barbari.'
Some scholars have suggested the possibility of Ibn Battuta misreading Maldive texts, and having a bias towards the North African, Maghrebi narrative of this Shaykh, instead of the East African origins account that was known as well at the time. Even when Ibn Battuta visited the islands the governor of the island at that time was Abd Aziz Al Mogadishawi, a Somali
Scholars have posited another scenario where this Abu Barakat might have been a native of Barbera, a significant trading port on the northwestern coast of Somalia. Barbara or Barbaroi (Berbers), as the ancestors of the Somalis were referred to by medieval Arab and ancient Greek geographers, respectively. This is also seen when Ibn Batuta visited Mogadishu, he mentions that the Sultan at that time, "Abu Bakr ibn Shaikh Omar", was a Berber (Somali). According to scholars, Abu Barakat Al Barbari was Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn, a famous native Somali scholar known for establishing the Walashma dynasty of the Horn of Africa.After his conversion of the population of Dogor (now known as Aw Barkhadle), a town in Somalia, he is also credited to have been responsible for spreading Islam in the Maldivian islands, establishing the Hukuru Miskiiy Mosque, and converting the Maldivian population to Islam. Ibn Batuta states the Maldivian king was converted by Abu Al Barakat Al Berber (Blessed Father of Somalia).
Others have it he may have been from the Persian town of Tabriz. The first reference to an Iranian origin dates to an 18th-century Persian text.
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. Following the Islamic concept that before Islam there was the time of Jahiliya (ignorance), in the history books used by Maldivians the introduction of Islam at the end of the 12th century is considered the cornerstone of the country's history.
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 Muhammad Bin Qāsim had converted large swathes of Sindh to Islam at about the same time. The Maldives remained a Buddhist kingdom for another 500 years after the conversion of Malabar Coast and Sindh—perhaps as the southwesternmost Buddhist country. Arabic became the prime language of administration (instead of Persian and Urdu), and the Maliki school of jurisprudence was introduced, both hinting at direct contacts with the core of the Arab world.
Middle Eastern seafarers had just begun to take over the Indian Ocean trade routes in the 10th century and found Maldives to be an important link in those routes as the first landfall for traders from Basra sailing to Southeast Asia. Trade involved mainly cowrie shells—widely used as a form of currency throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast—and coir fiber. The Bengal Sultanate, where cowrie shells were used as legal tender, was one of the principal trading partners of the Maldives. The Bengal–Maldives cowry shell trade was the largest shell currency trade network in history.
The other essential product of the Maldives was coir, the fibre of the dried coconut husk, resistant to saltwater. It stitched together and rigged the dhows that plied the Indian Ocean. Maldivian coir was exported to Sindh, China, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf.
16th century Portuguese sketch of the inhabitants of the Maldives, featured in the Códice Casanatense
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. Their attempts to impose Christianity provoked a local revolt led by Muhammad Thakurufaanu Al-Azam and his two brothers, that fifteen years later drove the Portuguese out of Maldives. This event is now commemorated as National Day.
In the mid-17th 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.
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 while retaining home rule, which continued to be regulated by Muslim traditional institutions in exchange for an annual tribute. The status of the islands was akin to other British protectorates in the Indian Ocean region, including Zanzibar and the Trucial States.
In the British period the Sultan's powers were 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. 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. 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, the 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 reestablish its wartime RAF Gan airfield in the southernmost Addu Atoll, employing hundreds of locals. In 1957, however, the new prime minister, Ibrahim Nasir, called for a review of the agreement. Nasir was challenged in 1959 by a local secessionist movement in the three southernmost atolls that benefited economically from the British presence on Gan. This group cut ties with the Maldives government and formed an independent state, the United Suvadive Republic with Abdullah Afif as president and Hithadhoo as capital. One year later the Suvadive republic was scrapped after Nasir sent gunboats from Malé with government police, and Abdulla Afif went into exile. Meanwhile, in 1960 the Maldives had allowed the United Kingdom 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. The base was closed in 1976 as part of the larger British withdrawal of permanently stationed forces 'East of Suez'.
Independence and republic
Mamoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Maldives (1978–2008)
In line with the broader British policy of decolonisation on 26 July 1965 an agreement was signed 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 Maldive Islands, which ended the British responsibility for the defence and external affairs of the Maldives. The islands thus achieved full political independence, with the ceremony taking place at the British High Commissioner's Residence in Colombo. After this, 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 taken in parliament to decide whether the Maldives should continue as a constitutional monarchy or become a republic. Of the 44 members of parliament, forty voted in favour of a republic. On 15 March 1968, a national referendum was held on the question, and 93.34% of those taking part voted in favour of establishing a republic. The republic was declared on 11 November 1968, thus ending the 853-year-old monarchy, which was replaced by a republic under the presidency of Ibrahim Nasir. As the King had held little real power, this was seen as a cosmetic change and required few alterations in the structures of government.
Tourism began to be developed on the archipelago by the beginning of the 1970s. The first resort in the Maldives was Kurumba Maldives which welcomed the first guests on 3 October 1972. The first accurate census was held in December 1977 and showed 142,832 persons residing in Maldives.
Political infighting during the '70s between Nasir's faction and other political figures led to the 1975 arrest and exile of elected prime minister Ahmed Zaki to a remote atoll. Economic decline followed the closure of the British airfield at Gan and the collapse of the market for dried fish, an important export. With support for his administration faltering, Nasir fled to Singapore in 1978, with millions of dollars from the treasury.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom began his 30-year role as president in 1978, winning six consecutive elections without opposition. His 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. Tourism flourished and increased foreign contact spurred development. However, Gayoom's rule was controversial, with some critics saying Gayoom was an autocrat who quelled dissent by limiting freedoms and political favouritism.
A series of coup attempts (in 1980, 1983, and 1988) by Nasir supporters and business interests tried to topple the government without success. While the first two attempts met with little success, the 1988 coup attempt involved a roughly 80-person mercenary force of the PLOTE who seized the airport and caused Gayoom to flee from house to house until the intervention of 1600 Indian troops airlifted into Malé restored order.
A November 1988 coup was headed by Muhammadu Ibrahim Lutfee, a small-businessman. On the night of 3 November 1988, the Indian Air Force airlifted a parachute battalion group from Agra and flew them over 2000km to the Maldives. The Indian paratroopers landed at Hulule and secured the airfield and restored the government rule at Malé within hours. The brief operation, labelled Operation Cactus, also involved the Indian Navy.
People in Malé removing sand bags from a nearby construction site, to be used as a barrier to protect their homes from the flood, shortly after being hit by the tsunami generated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.
On 26 December 2004, following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, the Maldives were devastated by a tsunami. Only nine islands were reported to have escaped any flooding, while fifty-seven islands faced serious damage to critical infrastructure, fourteen islands had to be totally evacuated, and six islands were destroyed. A further twenty-one resort islands were forced to close because of tsunami damage. The total damage was estimated at more than US$400 million, or some 62% of the GDP. 102 Maldivians and 6 foreigners reportedly died in the tsunami. The destructive impact of the waves on the low-lying islands was mitigated by the fact there was no continental shelf or land mass upon which the waves could gain height. The tallest waves were reported to be 14ft high.
During the later part of Gayoom's rule, independent political movements emerged in Maldives, which challenged the then-ruling Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (Maldivian People's Party, MPP) and demanded democratic reform. The dissident journalist and activist Mohamed Nasheed founded the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in 2003 and pressured Gayoom into allowing gradual political reforms.Autocracy and Back Again: The Ordeal of the Maldives. Brown Political Review. Retrieved on 10 May 2016. In 2008 a new constitution was approved and the first direct presidential elections occurred, which were won by Mohamed Nasheed in the second round. His administration faced many challenges, including the huge debt left by the previous government, the economic downturn following the 2004 tsunami, overspending (by means of overprinting of local currency rufiyaa), unemployment, corruption, and increasing drug use. Taxation on goods was imposed for the first time in the country, and import duties were reduced in many goods and services. Social welfare benefits were given to those aged 65 years or older, single parents, and those with special needs.
Social and political unrest grew in late 2011, following opposition campaigns in the name of protecting Islam. Nasheed controversially resigned from office after large number of police and army mutinied in February 2012. Nasheed's vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, was sworn in as president.
Nasheed was later arrested, convicted of terrorism, and sentenced to 13 years. The trial was widely seen as flawed and political. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for Nasheed's immediate release.
The elections in late 2013 were highly contested. Former president Mohammed Nasheed won the most votes in the first round, but the Supreme Court annulled it despite the positive assessment of international election observers. In the re-run vote Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of the former president Gayoom, assumed the presidency. Yameen introduced increased engagement with China, and promoted a policy of connecting Islam with anti-Western rhetoric. Yameen survived an assassination attempt in late 2015.Maldives President Escapes Unhurt After Explosion on Boat. Time.com (28 September 2015). Retrieved on 10 May 2016. Vice president Ahmed Adeeb was later arrested together with 17 supporters for "public order offences" and the government instituted a broader crackdown against political dissent. A state of emergency was later declared ahead of a planned anti-government rally,Maldives declares 30-day emergency – BBC News. bbc.co.uk. Retrieved on 10 May 2016. and the people's Majlis accelerated the removal of Vice president Ahmed Adeeb.
Though the popular image of the Maldives is that of a holiday paradise, its radicalised youths are enlisting in significant numbers to fight for ISIL militants in the Middle East.Bosley, Daniel. (24 October 2015) Maldives vice president arrested in probe of explosion targeting president. Reuters. Retrieved on 10 May 2016.
On 3 February 2018, Parliament dissolved and the military occupied the capital. On 5 February, the supreme court of Maldives released three imprisoned opposition leaders, including former President Mohammed Nasheed. The court also provided relief to 12 ministers who had been removed from President Abdullah Yameen's ruling party. Yameen refused to comply with the court order and imposed a state of emergency to last for 15 days. Protesters demonstrated on the streets against President Abdullah Yameen after the announcement of the emergency.