Conversion, cowries and independence!
Legend has it that a prince and his wife, the daughter of the King of todays Sri Lanka, stopped at Raa Atoll during a voyage and were invited to stay as rulers. Later King Koimala and his wife settled in Male with permission of the Giraavaru tribe, the aboriginal tribe of Kaafu atoll.
Nowadays Giraavaru people are still easily recognisable through their clothes and hairstyle, but only a few hundred of them are left and were resettled in Male in 1978. Their island, Giraavaru has been transformed into a tourist resort.
According to archaelogical findings, Aryans from India and Sri Lanka are believed to have settled in the Maldives from 1500 BC onwards. A favourite stop-over on the busy trade routes, the Maldives has had many visitors and influences. Trading with Arabia, China and India with coconut, dried fish and above all the precious cowry shell, which was used as currency in countries near the Indian Ocean. These shells were found as far away as Norway or West Africa showing the extent of the trade relations of the Maldives.
Conversion to Islam
Mohamed Ibn Batuta, a Moroccan traveller who visited the Maldives in the 14th century recorded an interesting legend on how the country converted to Islam. Abul Barakaath Yoosuf Al Barbary, an Islamic scholar, visited the Maldives during a time when people lived in fear of the Rannamaari, a sea-demon, who came out of the sea once a month threatening to destroy everything unless a virgin was sacrificed.
The unfortunate young girls, chosen by lottery, had to stay in a temple near the seashore and were found raped and dead in the morning. The daughter of the house where he was staying had been selected to be the victim and he decided to save her. Disguised as a girl he spent the night in the temple reciting continuously from the Holy Quran. In the morning when people went to find out the fate of the chosen girl they were amazed to find him alive and still reciting the Quran. When the King found out that the demon had been defeated through the power of the Holy Quran he embraced Islam and ordered all the subjects to follow him.
The Portuguese had a keen interest in the Maldives due to the availability of cowry shells, and ambergris – an important ingredient in perfumes, and had been approached by the formerly expelled Sultan, Hassan IX to help him regain his throne. Three attempts were repelled mainly due to Ali Rasgefaanu, who proved to be a brave and tough fighter. He became Sultan Ali VI but only for a few months as he was killed during another Portuguese attack, dying a martyrs death.
His tomb, built at the very spot where he died in the sea is now on dry land due to the reclamation of land in Male. Martyrs day, a public holiday, has been devoted to him. The next 15 years saw the darkest period in Maldivian history, when the Portuguese tried to enforce Christianity upon the islanders. Mohamed Thakurufaanu and his two brothers from the island of Utheemu, used a form of guerilla warfare for eight long years, during which one of the brothers was caught and beheaded.
Their strategy was to land on an island at night, kill the Portuguese in a surprise attack and sail off before dawn. Thakurufaanu sought the help of the Malabari, killed the Portuguese leader Andreas Andre, locally known as Andiri Andirin, and recaptured Male. He was made Sultan and reigned for 12 years forming a trained standing army, introducing coins, improving trade and religious observance and founding a dynasty that lasted for 132 years.
The British Protectorate
On December 16, 1887 the Sultan of the Maldives signed a contract with the British Governor of Ceylon turning the Maldives into a British protectorate. The British government promised the Maldives military protection and non-interference in local administration in exchange for an annual tribute paid by the Maldives.
In 1957 the British established a RAF base in the strategic southernmost atoll of Addu for two thousand pounds a year, where hundreds of locals were employed. Nineteen years later the British government decided to give up the base, as it was too expensive to maintain.
The Maldives gained independence on July 26, 1965. Three years later a republic was declared with Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir as the first president. In 1978 President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became president and has been re-elected five times since then. A coup attempt in 1988 by Sri Lankan mercenaries was successfully repelled. Small as it is the Maldives has always maintained independence and a strong unity despite influences and threats from outside. They are now an internationally renowned country, a member of the UN, WHO, SAARC, Commonwealth, the Non-Aligned Movement and others and play an important role in advocating the security of small nations and the protection of the environment.