For such a tiny nation, the Maldives have a lengthy history, dating back 3,000 years and possibly longer. For most of that time, the islands were chiefly an anchorage, used by maritime cultures from the Phoenicians to the Portuguese. But unlike many other nations in their part of the world, the Maldives have always been a fully independent state, except for two relatively brief intervals: one 15 year period of occupation under the Portuguese in the 16th century, and another 80 year stretch as a British protectorate that lasted until 1965. Today the Maldives are recognized as one of the most fabulous resort destinations on the planet.
The Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl believed the atoll islands were first colonized by Sri Lankan seafarers around 2000 BC, a theory he explored at some length in his bestseller, "The Maldive Mystery." The Maldives, Heyerdahl argued, were a well-known pit stop for many ancient maritime civilizations, including the Egyptians, the Phoenicians and the Mesopotamians.
These earliest Maldivians were known as the Redin according to Heyerdahl, a name which survives today in Maldivian folktales. The Redin were fair-haired and tall, and on the isle of Landoo they left archeological evidence of their existence, dome-shaped mounds called hawittas, suggestively similar to Buddhist stupas later found in Sri Lanka. Academic archeologists dispute Heyerdahl’s theories.
It’s likely that Buddhism spread to the Maldives in the 3rd century, during the same push that disseminated the religion into Afghanistan, Central Asia and Sri Lanka. Buddhism became the Maldives' dominant religion for 1,400 years and foundations of Buddhist monasteries and monuments can be found on many of the islands, buried under sand and jungle.
The earliest allusion to the Maldives in classical times may appear in the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a 1st century Roman guide to navigating the ports of the Red Sea, North Africa and the coast of India. The unknown author mentions “islands along the coast of Damirica,” which many modern historians believe is a reference to the Maldives.
The Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy described the Maldives in detail in his 1st century AD classic “Geographia.” Three centuries later, a Roman historian recorded the state visit of a Maldivian delegation to the Imperial City, bearing gifts for the Emperor Julian.
The other great classical empire, China, also knew the Maldives well. Chinese navigators, engaged in trade with India, referred to the islands’ labyrinth of reefs and lagoons as the Three Thousand Weak Waters. Chinese records show the Maldivians also sent ambassadors with gifts to the court of the Tang Dynasty.
The Maldives’ Conversion To Islam
The Maldives were also familiar to Arab traders who collected cowrie shells there for use as currency in their trading along the East African coast. The Arab traders introduced their religion to the area. In 1153 AD, the Buddhist king of the Maldives converted to the Moslem faith, assuming the title Sultan Muhammad al Adil. Sultan Muhammad al Adil’s dynasty was the first of six Islamic dynasties that ruled the Maldives continuously until 1934.
The conversion was not altogether peaceful. Copper plates known as the Dhanbidhū Lōmāfānu, the historical records of the time, note that many Buddhist monks were beheaded and Buddhist monuments, monasteries and sculptures destroyed.
The Colonial Era
Marco Polo visited the Maldives on his famous journeys, describing them as the “flower of the Indies.” As foreign trade became increasingly important to the seafaring nations of Western Europe, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands set their sights on the Maldives, and in 1558 the Portuguese established a small garrison there, which they administered from their Goa outpost, 300 miles away. The Portuguese were driven out in 1573 by a local leader named Muhammad Thakurufaanu Al-Azam. The anniversary of this event is celebrated each year on the first day of the third month of the lunar year as National Day.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch and the British vied for control over the islands. By the end of the 18th century, the British had effectively undermined Dutch influence in the area but the Maldives did not become an official British protectorate until 1886. The Maldives remained an official British protectorate until 1965, when the Maldives joined the United Nations as a sovereign state, responsible for its own defense.
The Maldives In the 20th Century
Even as a British protectorate, the Maldivians remained responsible for their own internal affairs. In 1932, the Maldives enacted its first Constitution, relegating the Sultan to the role of constitutional monarch. In 1953, the sultanate was suspended altogether and a republic proclaimed under the presidency of Muhammad Amin Didi. Didi became unpopular through his support of women’s rights and was ousted by Islamic conservatives. In 1954, the sultanate was reinstituted.
In 1959, Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir angered the leaders of the southern islands by questioning the terms of a military lease the British held on Addu Atoll. These islands cut their ties with the rest of the Maldives and formed an independent state called United Suvadive Republic that lasted until 1963.
In 1965, the Maldives gained its independence from the UK, and the sultanate was abolished for the final time in a national referendum held three years later.
The Maldives Today
In 1968, Ibrahim Nasir was elected President of the Maldives. Although Nasir was a corrupt man who eventually was forced to flee the islands after absconding with millions of dollars from the state treasury, he was a visionary of sorts and the first to see the economic potential for tourism in the Maldives. The first Maldivian island resort was opened in 1973. Tourism has allowed the Maldives to prosper. The gross per capita domestic product expanded over 250 percent in the 1980s, and an additional 115 percent in the 1990s.
In 1978, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom succeeded Nasir as President, and was known for his fundamentalist Islamic leanings. Yet the government continued to get 90 percent of its revenues from a tourism industry that caters to Western travelers. As both the head of government and head of state controlling the military he ran the country as a dictator, banning alernative political parties and restricting freedom of the press. Despite a presidency marred by corruption and human rights abuses he remained President, surviving 3 coup d'etats and an assasination attempt, until 2008 when he was defeated at election - indeed the first election he had allowed to be contested by a political opponent.