About the Maldives

The Maldives are made up of 26 atolls scattered over an area of 90,000 square kilometers, on and just north of the equator. As we had mentioned while in the Tuomotus, atolls were once larger islands that have slowly sunk over thousands of years. The lower points of the island are already underwater, leaving the higher points exposed as multiple small islands situated around a reef. There are 1190 of these smaller islands that make up the larger atolls in the Maldives. The population of the country is roughly 300,000, with about 130,000 living in the capital, Male.

It is believed to be first inhabited before 500BC by Sri Lankan and Southern Indians. Arab traders came through the Maldives en route to the Far East beginning in the 2nd century AD. The Maldives were called “The Money Isles” because they had a tremendous amount of cowrie shells used as international currency at the time. According to legend, in 1153 AD, a sea jinni (evil spirit) called Rannamaari demanded regular sacrifices of young virgin girls in Malé. Abu Al Barakat, a visiting North African Arab, took the place of a sacrificial virgin, and drove the demon away by reading from the Koran, the Islamic holy book. The Maldivian king at the time was sold on Islam, and Barakat later became the first sultan. A series of six sultanic dynasties followed – 84 sultans and sultanas in all. The Maldives are still officially an Islamic nation.

The Portuguese first arrived in the 16th century. The Portuguese were allowed to build a fort and factory in Male. Wanting more power, in 1558 the Portuguese killed the local sultan and ruled over the Maldives for 15 years, until an island chief led a rebellion that successfully wiped out most of the Portuguese. In the 17th century, the Maldives came under the protection of the Dutch and later the British, but neither established a colonial administration. In the 1860s, Borah merchants from Bombay set up warehouses and shops in Malé, and quickly acquired an almost exclusive monopoly on foreign trade. The sultan at the time was weary of the Borahs’ economic grip. The sultan signed an agreement with the British in 1867 which allowed the British to establish defense facilities on some outlying islands, but guaranteed that the nation remained fully independent.

The first Maldivian constitution was drawn up in 1932, and it made the sultan an elected office instead of an inherited title. In 1956, the British military began developing an air base in an atoll at the far south of the country, employing hundreds of locals. In 1957, a new sultan, Nasir, was elected, who demanded from the British more money, a shorter lease time, and that local labor not be used. The locals in the south were angry and declared themselves a separate state from the Maldives. The sultan sent in the military to quash the rebellion in 1962. In 1965, Britain recognized the Maldives as a fully independent state. We are unclear if this means the British simply stopped being their protectorate, or if the British had been actively involved in ruling behind the scenes and stepped back, like in Malaysia. Maybe one of our readers can clarify that for us.

In 1968 there was a referendum, where the sultanate was abolished and a republic established. Nasir was elected president and ruled autocratically for a decade before fleeing the country out of fear for his life. In 1978, Gayoom became the next elected president. Gayoom is still in power, managing to survive coup attempts in 1980 and 1988. Currently, Gayoom is facing tremendous pressure, both at home and world wide, to allow a multi-party system and to stop jailing political dissidents. They are also jailing people caught reading independent newspapers or listening to independent radio. Gayoom and his administration are also accused of extreme corruption for personal benefit. There was an assassination attempt on Gayoom’s life last year at a public rally. Gayoom’s life was saved by a brave boy scout.

The Maldives were badly affected by the tsunami in December 2004. 81 people died, 27 people re missing, and 20,500 lost their homes.

The economy of the Maldives is made up primarily from tourism, with fishing and foreign aid being the second and third sources of income. The Maldives has focused on the high end tourist.

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