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date: 25 April 2019

The Maldives as an Indian Ocean Crossroads

Summary and Keywords

The Maldives form the central part of an underwater mountain range in the center of the Indian Ocean, creating a crossroads for seafaring, migration, trade, and warfare. Because of this remote yet strategic location, the Maldives became either a disastrous hurdle, a convenient stopover, or a promising stepping stone in the Indian Ocean—and a favorable residence for a small, self-contained, ocean-foraging and seafaring people. The Maldives are among the few central and western Indian Ocean islands that were already populated, long before the colonial period. The archipelago is presumed to have been settled some 2,500 years ago. Dravidian, Sinhalese Buddhist, and Arab Muslim influences formed the unique cultural identity of the preindustrial Dhivehin (Maldivians). Throughout the historic eras, the crossroads position of the Maldives becomes conspicuous at particular junctures. Three commodities exported by the Dhivehin were of particular significance in the global economy and positioned the islands at various historical crossroads: coco-de-mer, coir, and cowries.

Ptolemy’s Geography provides the earliest western reference to the archipelago. Ibn Battuta, who served as the royal judge, is a renowned representative of the Arab trade and Muslim religious networks that had a lasting effect on the shape of the island kingdom. The most comprehensive accounts of the colonial era are provided by the shipwrecked François Pyrard, from the early 17th century, and by H. C. P Bell, between 1879 and 1922.

The Maldives have ethnic and linguistic ties to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and were politically and economically closely connected to this neighbor. In 1887 the archipelago officially became a British protectorate, gaining its independence in 1965. The eradication of major diseases paved the way for the advent of the tourism industry in the 1970s. Since the late 1990s, the molecular approach to population movements in the Indian Ocean has provided new insights into the cultural admixtures that contribute to the genetic mosaic of the Dhivehin.

Keywords: Maldive Islands, Maliku, central Indian Ocean, Dhivehin, cowry, Sunni Muslim, Indo-Aryan language, trade, migration, genetics


The Maldives form the central part of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge. This aseismic underwater volcanic mountain range forms a natural north-south barrier of some 2,350 kilometers to the currents and seasonal monsoon winds in the center of the Indian Ocean, creating a crossroads for seafaring, migration, trade, and warfare. The Maldivian midsection of this oceanic obstacle stretches almost 900 kilometers, from latitude 7° 6ʹ north to just south of the equator. The tips of the underwater mountains form the foundation for 1192 small coral islands, amounting to just 298 square kilometers terra firma of the 115,300 square kilometers of the Republic of the Maldives’ sovereign surface area.1 Grouped as clusters or atolls, the islands and islets form a double chain of twenty-six ring-shaped atolls that is no more than 128 kilometers wide and merges in the far north and south.2

The Maldives as an Indian Ocean CrossroadsClick to view larger

Figure 1. Map of the Maldives.

Some particularly deep and broad kandu (channels) cut through the entire archipelago in an east-west direction, providing a time-saving direct passage on cross-oceanic shipping routes.3 This mid-oceanic obstacle of considerable length and significance, composed of an unmanageable number of tiny islands, was always a challenge for seafaring and cartography. The disproportionally large representation of the Maldives on some historic nautical maps probably indicates the hazardousness of the treacherous reefs and shoals as much as the islands’ prominence as a port-of-call on the ancient Indian Ocean trade routes or the significance for certain types of merchandise. Many modern maps, by contrast, discard any plotting of the Maldives since they are below their sense of proportion. Auguste Toussaint,4 Burkhard Schnepel, and Edward Alpers,5 however, remind scholars who seek to understand the history of the Indian Ocean not to neglect the tiny islands, since they often play crucial roles in connecting people, things, and ideas.

This article follows a general chronological sequence but prioritizes certain topics. Chronological order in the narrow sense will therefore sometimes be overruled by topical consistency.

The Maldives as an Indian Ocean CrossroadsClick to view larger

Figure 2. Part of a northern atoll.

Photo by Eva-Maria Knoll, 2015.

Origins and Early History

The Maldives are among the few central and western Indian Ocean islands that were already populated long before the colonial period and had a fairly independent development. Little is known about the Maldives’ early history, since historic and literary references are scarce and archaeological evidence is rare. Some scholars presume Ceylon (Sri Lanka), others north or south India as the origins of first settlers, emphasizing Sinhalese and Aryan ancestry, others assume that the archipelago was settled by Dravidian-speaking people some 2,500 years ago—either directly from the subcontinent or via Sri Lanka—and emphasize a Tamil influence.

The 340,000 islanders on the Maldives and some 10,000 on Maliku (Minicoy, India) speak Dhivehi (called Mahl on Maliku)—the southernmost expansion of the Indo-Aryan language group before 1492. In 1878, Albert Gray was already emphasizing the resemblance between Dhivhi and Elu, an ancient form of Sinhalese.6 In the twenty-first century Elu is recognized as Prakrit, a vernacular version of Sanskrit ancestral to both Dhivehi and Sinhalese. The Dhivehin are probably the smallest contemporary community in the world to have developed their own distinctive script: Thaana was developed in the Muslim era through cultural interactions with Arabic, and today’s Thanna script consists of twenty-four consonant characters with vocalization marks. Thaana is also written from right to left, unlike the two earlier scripts in official use. During the 18th century, Thaana gradually replaced Dives akuru (Maldivian letters), which were written from left to right and resembled earlier forms of Sinhalese script. The first truly Dhivehi script, Eveyla Akuru (ancient letters), goes back to the Buddhist period of the 10th to 11th centuries.7 This points to pre-Islamic scriptural traditions in the Maldives and a corresponding but more profound linguistic legacy.

Legends and oral history are interpreted to fill in the gaps when documentary evidence is lacking. The Koimala legend, for example, acknowledges a noble couple who emigrated from Ceylon as being the first to rule Maldivians, with the consent of what the legend refers to as the aboriginal people of the archipelago, the Giraavaru.8 Another legend, written in Arabic in the 17th century, links the first settlers to the Indus Valley civilization.9 In general, however, scholars agree on mixed origins of the Maldive islanders, on their arrival at various time periods, and on a diversity of cultural influences, as well as on a close ethnic and linguistic relation to the Sinhalese-speaking (Indo-European) majority in Sri Lanka. Early Hindu, subsequently Sinhalese Buddhist, and, later still, Arab Muslim influences formed the unique cultural identity of the early Dhivehin (Maldivians). Accordingly, etymological interpretations of the name “Mal-dives” agree that the ending is derived from the Sanskrit dvipa, “island.” The prefix “Mal” may also be derived from the Sanskrit mala, “garland” or “necklace” (shaped archipelago), or from Arabic maḥal—“location,” “place,” referring to the sultans’ residence on Male’, the capital island.10 Dhivehi Raajje—the island realm of the Dhivehin—is the indigenous name of the country.

Archaeological evidence documents elements of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs on the archipelago before the advent of Islam. Dágaba-shaped mounds and ruins of other Buddhist structures were methodologically investigated and partially excavated by Harry Charles Purvis Bell (widely known as H. C. P. Bell), the first to hold the post Archaeological Commissioner of Ceylon. In 1922, Bell documented ancient sites on several islands throughout the archipelago and considered the Dhivehi terms for these structures (ustubu, havitta, and veere) to be indicative of a former Buddhist presence (cf. Sinhalese stupa, caitya, and vihara).11 This and subsequent Maldivian archeological expeditions from 1948 onward identified the ancient structures, artifacts, and inscriptions as belonging to the Vajrayana and Theravada forms of Buddhism.12

The Maldives as an Indian Ocean CrossroadsClick to view larger

Figure 3. Section through a dágaba-shaped mound on Fua Mulaku island (Gnavyani Atoll). H. C. P. Bell and M. W. de Silva, First Archaeological Expedition to Southern Atolls, February 1922, architectural drawings, plate VII.

The Maldives as an Indian Ocean CrossroadsClick to view larger

Figure 4. The top of the ancient havitta on Fua Mulaku (Gnaviyani Atoll) in 2011.

Photo by Eva-Maria Knoll.

Structures of the traditional water management system of the Dhivehin (veyo and bodu valu) were linked to the highly developed water infrastructure of the ancient hydraulic societies of Ceylon13 and of the Harappa culture.14 The most heavily criticized, yet probably the most popular approach to early Maldivian history was proposed by the adventurer and cultural diffusionist Thor Heyerdhal.15 Misinterpreting Buddhist symbols and overwhelmed by the location of the island Fua Mulaku (Gnavyani Atoll) in the middle of the Equatorial Channel, Heyerdhal suggested early influences from sun-worshipping seafarers, called Redin.

The navigational log Periplus Maris Erythraei and Ptolemy’s Geography from around ad 150 provide the earliest known written European sources on the archipelago. Early Arab references to Dibajat (the Laccadives and Maldives) date back to Sulaiman at-Tagir in the 9th century and include Al-Mas’udi, Al-Biruni, Idrisi, and Al Dimasqi over the following five hundred years into the Islamic period.16


The Dhivehi Tarikh, the state chronicle, marks ad 1153 (548 ah) as the date of the country’s conversion to Islam and the establishment of the Kingdom of Maldives as an independent sultanate.17 The conversion legend recalls the arrival of a pious scholar who rid the archipelago of a demon and brought in the faith of the Prophet. Each month, the demon from the sea demanded the sacrifice of a virgin. The learned scholar took the unfortunate girl’s place in the idol house. By reciting the Qur’an, which he knew by heart, throughout the night, he freed the islanders from the demon. The Tarikh accredits the introduction of Islam to Sheikh Yusuf Shams al-Din of Tabriz.18 Ibn Battuta, however, assigns this honor to the Maghrebin Abū al-Barakāt al-Barbari, who was of his own Islamic orientation and regional background. The Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence did indeed prevail at first; in the 16th century, however, the Maldives moved to the Shaf’i madhhab.19 This linked the archipelago to the Shaf’i Muslim communities of the Indian Ocean littoral and distinguished them from the majority of Hanafi Sunnites among the Indian subcontinent’s Muslims.20 Abū al-Barakāt is also officially recognized as the sheikh accountable for the conversion, and his tomb (Medhu Ziyaaraiy) is a venerated heritage site next to the presidential palace in Male’.

The modern Maldivian constitution links citizenship to religious adherence. The Maldives proudly claim to be a 100 percent Sunni Muslim country, in which only tourists and expat workers privately practice other religions. Local religious establishments increasingly draw inspiration from reformist ideologies rooted in Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East.21 The popular belief level, moreover, is characterized by a particularly pronounced belief in a plethora of dhevi. These supernatural beings include jinni, as well as fureytha, handi,and other forms of spirits, designated with local terms derived both from Arabic and Sanskrit.22 The somewhat related practices of fanditha (cf. Sanskrit pańdit—a “learned person”) constitute “a religio-magical science widely accepted throughout the archipelago,”23 characterized even as “a parallel religious system.”24 Local terminologies for these spiritual beings again emphasize a variety of historical linguistic background, which in itself underlines the Maldivian crossroads position through the ages. In Muslim times, this further increased with the coming and going of Arab and Persian merchants and the islands’ incorporation into the dhow culture of the western and central Indian Ocean and into the trade with Southeast Asia.

Six dynasties of sultans, among them six sultanas, ruled from 1153, when the Buddhist Kingdom transformed into a sultanate and the first dynasty of the sultanate, the Theemuge Dynasty, was founded, until 1968 (interrupted by a short-lived First Republic), when the sultanate under Sultan Muhammad Fareed Didi of the Huraa Dynasty was replaced by a republic.

Two visits to the Maldives by Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad Ibn Baṭṭūṭa—generally known as Ibn Battuta (1304–1368), or Batuta in earlier sources—in 1343–1344 and 1346, including a sojourn of about one and a half years, are frequently referenced. The travelogue, however, written after his return to Morocco in the mid-1350s, relied on Ibn Battuta’s memory, which resulted in some temporal inconsistency.25 His function as the royal court’s qadi, or judge, in Mahal (Male’) for eight months and a subsequent seventy-day sojourn in southern Gnaviyani Atoll as he made his departure seem to be beyond doubt. Having married into the Dhivehin nobility of Male’ and holding one of the sultanate’s highest public offices, Ibn Battuta’s unique and precious observations and interpretations of the archipelago’s economy, customs, and social conventions are nevertheless influenced by his elite position and perspectives at a time of increasing Muslim influence.

The sequence of religious orientations illustrates the islands’ embeddedness in the wider region’s dominant tides of history. Fittingly, the second most comprehensive historical account on the archipelago after that of the learned Muslim is provided by a European castaway.

European Expansion: Explorations and Scholarly Curiosity

Combining commercial interests with scholarly curiosity, European expansionism not only brought some scientific expeditions to the Maldives, but also countless shipwrecks. “One may (even) reckon shipwreck as one of the factors contributing to the cultural complexity and civilizational growth of the country.”26 In 1602, lacking the services of a skilled Dhivehi pilot to navigate the treacherous reefs and shoals, François Pyrard de Laval, a chronicler on a French merchants’ expedition to the East Indies, was shipwrecked on the reef of Goidhoo Atoll in the Kardiva Channel.27 The only two dozen survivors succumbed to the legendary Maldive fever, but Pyrard—like Ibn Battuta before him—survived the fever and was held captive on the Maldives for over five years. In contrast to Ibn Battuta, who was esteemed for his privileged access to the sources of faith and law of Sunni scholarship, Pyrard mastered the native Dhivehi language, and in this way earned the respect of the local authorities, including the sultan. Pyrard provided the most detailed historical account on the Maldives.28

The period between Pyrard’s memoirs and the growing western scientific-economic interest, indicated by the accurate mapping of the atolls in the 1830s, still represents a scarcely and only occasionally documented era in Maldivian history as far as more widely available source material is concerned.29 “Owing to the want of accurate information respecting the position and dangers of the groups composing Maldiva Islands” and to the deadly attacks of Maldive fever, “any near approach to them is generally avoided by navigators, except in passing through one wide channel, in the parallel of 1ʹ30ʺ North latitude,” wrote Young and Christopher two hundred years after Pyrard.30 Some fifty years later, the explorer and collector Carl Wilhelm Rosset declared the remote and isolated island group still “practically a terra incognita to Europeans.”31 From 1834 to 1836, British hydrographical surveys were carried out to allow safer navigation through the Maldive archipelago: Commander Robert Moresby (1795–1854) provided the first accurate Admiralty maps.32 Survey lieutenants Young and Christopher took an interest in the local language and customs of the Dhivehi; both, however, were impaired by the fever and the also prevalent “inflammation of the bowels.”33

H. C. P. Bell became the archaeological commissioner of Ceylon after the first of three visits to the Maldives, in 1879, 1920, and 1922. Countless articles on the physical features, history, and culture of the islands most notably his Excerpta Máldiviana, published during 1922–1926 in the Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland,34 and later compiled into three monographs, made Bell “the acknowledged father of Maldivian studies.”35 Following a special interest in the history of the archipelago, Bell was the first European to document, transcribe, and translate inscriptions, copper-plate, board and paper grants, and local chronicles. Using these materials and additional information, he created meticulous lists and genealogies of the ruling dynasties and sultans. Bell’s third visit was dedicated to an archaeological investigation of the archipelago’s Buddhist history and its linkages to Sinhalese Ceylon.36

T. W. Hockly, an Admiralty contractor and business broker from Ceylon, arrived on the first of two brief visits to Male’, in 1926, on a Bohra buggalow (sailing ship) from Colombo; he returned eight years later on the steamer HMS Enterprise.37 Hockly is a valuable witness to both a particular economic period when the foreign trade of the Dhivehin was completely in the hands of the Isma’li Bohra community and the early advent of technological transformation on the remote yet connected islands.38

The Cambridge expedition of 1899–1900 brought the British zoologist and pioneer of coral reef research John Stanley Gardiner (1872–1946) to the Laccadives and the northern atolls of the Maldives. Although Gardiner came down with malaria, his expedition, as well as Alexander Agassiz’s expedition 1901–1902, resulted in substantial new information about Maldive reef marine life, the islands, and their people.39 The interest in the unique underwater world of the Maldives was resumed some sixty years later with the Xarifa expedition 1958–1959, led by the Austrian diving pioneer Hans Hass.

The Maldives as an Indian Ocean CrossroadsClick to view larger

Figure 5. Harbor of a Maldivian village.

Photo by Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1928–2018), Xarifa expedition 1957–1958.

The marine-life researchers of the Xarifa were no longer like their predecessors, trenching and wading in shallow lagoons to collect and observe specimens; instead, they observed while swimming themselves, with their aqualungs, “like fish among fish.” Hass and his team, in fact, were the first scuba divers in the Maldives, and they brought pictures of the remote island and the largely unknown underwater environments of the coral reefs, as well as the developing diving and underwater camera techniques, into European living rooms.40 The Xarifa carried the researchers through the atolls from one dive site to the next and served as a floating laboratory. The Xarifa can thus also be seen as an archetype of the contemporary safari boat as an effective tool for visiting as many different dive sites as possible in a short period of time. By 2017, 144 safari boats (or “live-aboards”) were catering to divers, forming a distinct segment of the prosperous Maldivian tourism industry, which also included 126 resort islands and 382 guest houses. In 2016, the tourism sector, with 1.3 million arrivals, produced 20 percent of the Maldivian gross domestic product, and China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy were the four major source countries.41 This again puts the Maldives at the crossroads of the movement of people from diverse nationalities and with diverse interests: divers, honeymooners, celebrities, and the dark tourism clientele who want to visit the islands before they disappear beneath rising sea levels.

Economic and Genetic Crossroads

The Maldivian coral islands are low-lying and exceptionally limited in space and natural resources. Sustainable settlement of the archipelago depended on Indian Ocean mobility and connectivity. Dhivhin fishermen, sailors, navigators, and traders belonged to “the large floating population” in the dhow traffic of the Indian Ocean.42 The Dhivehin observed the annual cycle of the ocean’s rain, wind, current and tide patterns, and—in interaction with Indian and Arabic knowledge and based on Sanskrit names—developed their nakaiy seasonal calendar system. Twenty-eight nakaiy periods of thirteen or fourteen days provided guidance through fishing and trading seasons43 and are now also used in diving and water sports.

Maldivian navigators were able to measure the position of their ships by using Arab navigational knowledge and the kamal, among other instruments, which they employed well into the 19th century.44 Long before modern times, Dhivehin were already sailing their skillfully crafted ocean-going vessels as far as the African coast;45 to China in the east, after the Ming naval commander Cheng Ho had called at the Maldives in the early fourteenth century;46 and to the Roman empire’s boundaries in the northwest.

Besides the Dhivehins’ seafaring skills, the Maldives were a convenient intermediate stop for supplies and trade on the long-distance shipping routes. Because of the shallow waters of the Palk Strait between Ceylon and the Indian mainland, ocean-going vessels had to sail around the southern tip of Ceylon. There “the set of tidal currents rapidly changes,” and if the ship “falls in with a head wind, it is driven at once to this country,” acknowledges the earliest Chinese reference to Liu-shan (Maldive and Laccadive Islands) from the mid-14th century, a source roughly contemporary to Ibn Battuta’s accounts.47 Assessing the charts compiled by G. R. Tibbetts from major Arab navigational texts and other sources, Andrew D. W. Forbes48 similarly argues that medieval Arab ships, especially those on return voyages from Bengal or Southeast Asia to Arabia were already often calling at Male’, in the archipelago’s very center. This tendency further increased after the early 16th century, when Muslim ships preferred to take their “route through the Maldives, that kept them clear of their enemies”—that is, as a response to the growing presence of Portuguese fleets on the Malabar coast.49

With few examples, Maldivian foreign trade had become centralized and monopolized and the Sultan’s Island (Male’) served as an emporium for the local and transoceanic trade.50 Based on Ibn Battuta’s observations, economic historian and anthropologist Karl Polanyi ranked Male’ among the “authentic ports of trade.” In his view, this “typical organ of overseas trade” of premodern times was kind of a trading post where trading activities were carried out under particular conditions, including hospitality and protection, between different local and trading communities.51

The preindustrial economy of the Maldives was limited, since their small coral islands provided few raw materials and only limited opportunities for cultivation; it had drawn on two main sources: products provided by the sea and by the coconut palm. In accordance with the changing rhythm of the monsoon winds the Dhivehin bartered, traded, and offered tribute by means of these products, both within the archipelago and farther afield. As the central items of exquisite tourism destinations and abundant fishing grounds, these two sources are still the backbone of the Maldivian economy.

The Dhivehin imported staple foods, such as rice and other grains; luxury goods, such as sugar, tea, coffee, spices; and as pots, nails, clothes; and other products for daily use. Even the small but excellent weaving, lacquer, and smithery artisan industries depended on imported raw materials. They exported dried fish, coco de mer, coir rope, tortoise shells, woven grass mats, and ambergris (a waxy substance with a musk-like fragrance that originates in the digestive system of the sperm whale and is still in high demand by the perfume industry). These commodities were of particular significance in the translocal and global economy and positioned the islands at various historical crossroads.

The coco-de-mer is an exemplary indicator for the Maldives’ mid-oceanic barrier location, because this plant kingdom’s largest seed drifted in the major west-east Indian Ocean currents and regularly washed up on the shores of the Maldives. A shape reminiscent of female buttocks, associated with exceptional powers, sexual desire, and fertility, put the rare double coconut in great demand for the 16th-century curiosity cabinets of European nobility. Moreover, cut in half and used as a begging bowl, it became one of the insignia of the Persian dervish.52 An underwater coconut species was assumed as the nuts’ source in the Maldivian archipelago before the Seychelles were discovered in the early 17th century as their actual, far away place of origin. The Seychelles nut thus initially came to be known as the “Maldive coconut,” and its palm tree caries the scientific misnomer Lodoicea maldivica.

Maldivian roanu (coir, or coconut-fiber rope) was valued in Indian Ocean sailing “for its light colour, fineness and strength.”53 Maldivian coir was used to stitch together the hulls of the dhows, because it gave those vessels greater resilience than ones nailed together if they ran onto a reef.54 Arab and Gujarati traders as well as the Portuguese demanded enduring Maldivian coir rigging.55 It even has been remarked “that the Portuguese in former times obtained most of the rope required by their fleets in the Indies from the Maldives.”56

Cowries, small, shiny, porcelain-like oval shells of a marine gastropod, were used as “small change” in the monetary system of the Indian Ocean trade that combined South Asia, West Asia, Europe, Africa, and the New World between the 16th and 18th centuries. The Dhivehin traded large quantities of cowries the ports of Ceylon, Bengal, and India. Colonial trading companies shipped them on to major European trading centers and on to West Africa, where they were the only means of purchasing slaves. Taking into account its large spatial and temporal span, the cowry “was probably the first universal money and one that lasted longer than any other kind of money in human history.”57 Most of the enormous quantities of Cypraea moneta shells circulating as the shell money of the global slave trade were fished in the lagoons of the Maldives.58 Fish-hook-shaped silver larins, as another currency, were first imported from Persia, India, and Sri Lanka but already in Pyrard’s time were being minted in the Maldives, followed by minted circular coins in the late 17th century.59

The Maldives as an Indian Ocean CrossroadsClick to view larger

Figure 6. Maldivian Cypraea moneta—cowries.

Photo by Mehmet Emir.

Colonial Encounters

The age of European discovery and oceanic expansion also put the archipelago at the crossroads with European colonial encounters, first with the Portuguese.60 The most severe colonial attempt to intervene in Maldivian affairs resulted in a brief but violent period of Portuguese dominance, from 1558 to 1573, remembered on the Maldivian side as particularly brutal. It was terminated by a guerrilla war under the leadership of the national hero Mohamed Thakurufaan.61 Thakurufaanu’s victory is commemorated as the Maldives National Day on the first day of Rabee ul Awwal, the third month in the Islamic calendar. A quayside encircling the oval island of Male’ was recently renamed Boduthakurufaanu Magu (Great Thakurufaan Street).

The Maldives as an Indian Ocean CrossroadsClick to view larger

Figure 7. Woodcarvers in Male’, Maldives.

Photo by Carl Wilhelm Rosset, 1885. KHM-Museumsverband, Weltmuseum Vienna.

Colonial conquerors had far less to gain from the small, sandy, and sparsely populated islands than from their two fertile and prospering neighbors to the east, Ceylon and the Indian mainland. Throughout the remainder of the colonial period the Maldives were nominally a protectorate. The Dhivehin retained internal self-government based on their Islamic customs. In return for protection in matters of foreign policy they paid annual tributes: to the Dutch from 1645 on, to the French in the mid-18th century—when the Maldives had to endure recurring assaults by Malabar pirates—and to the British from 1796. In 1887 the islands’ tributary protectorate status was certified through an agreement signed by Sultan Muhammad Mueenuddeen and the British governor of Ceylon. The loose but enduring connection lasted until 1965, when the Maldives gained independence. With the independence of Ceylon and India, however, the Maldives attained particular strategic importance for Britain as an insular presence and supply station in the region. In 1941, a Royal Air Force base was built on Gan Island, in the southernmost Seenu Atoll, whose fringing reef features a natural harbor. To build the airbase, a local Maldivian village was relocated to a neighboring island; the island’s vegetation was completely razed; and the hawittas on Gan, documented by H. C. P. Bell, were demolished. The British lease of the RAF base on Gan ended in 1976, eleven years after the Maldives gained independence—and after geopolitical interest had shifted farther south to Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago.

The Era of Modernization

Significant efforts to modernize and re-connect the isolated archipelago with contemporary international developments began in the 1950s—from inside the Maldives by the reform-oriented prime minister Mohamed Amin Didi (1910–1954),62 president of the First Republic, established in 1953, and from the outside by, for example, the World Health Organization and comparable international bodies when they first became aware of the poor health conditions on the remote islands. President Amin Didi’s overeager and unpopular reforms, however, coincided with the difficult supply situation in the postwar years. He was overthrown after a coup involving violent clashes with a hungry and angry mob; he died on January 19, 1954, a prisoner on the island of Vihamanaafushi, which twenty years later became known as Kurumba, the Maldives’ first tourist resort. On March 7, 1954, the sultanate was re-established with Ali Amir Muhammed Fareed Didi as sultan.

Between 1958 and 1962, a secessionist movement in the three southernmost atolls declared the internationally unrecognized and short-lived Suvadhiva Nation.63 Following a considerable interval after India’s and Ceylon’s independence shortly after the Second World War, the Maldives were granted complete independence by Britain on July 26, 1965. The sultanate was ultimately abolished and the Second Republic was established in 1968 with Ibrahim Nasir as president.

The inescapability and deadly impact of the legendary and feared Maldivian fever on locals and visitors alike had been documented for over six hundred years—that is, ever since Ibn Battuta came down with it.64 The successful fight against filariasis, leprosy, malaria, and tuberculosis,65 the four major lethal diseases of the archipelago,—and the establishment of air services between the isolated archipelago and Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Trivandrum in India opened the way for tourism, establishing the Maldives as a new crossroads of movements and interests, and bringing a radical and lasting transformation in the fortunes of the Maldive islanders. Maldivian tourism began in 1972 under Ibrahim Nasir (1926–2008), the first president of the Second Republic. Six years later, in 1978, the year of a great cholera epidemic that claimed more than two hundred lives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was elected president of one of the twenty poorest states in the world. Gayoom reigned for three decades, becoming Asia’s longest serving autocrat. He ruled throughout the Maldives’ modernization phase, from the motorization of the wind- and oar-powered fishing dhoani in the 1970s to the arrival of the cell phone in the twenty-first century.

The Maldives as an Indian Ocean CrossroadsClick to view larger

Figure 8. Sailing boats are rarely used for subsistence fishing or tourism today.

Photo by Eva-Maria Knoll, Laamu Atoll, 2014.

Gayoom withstood attempts to overthrow his government, such as the failed 1988 coup d’état by a group of armed mercenaries from the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), a splinter group of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers. And he continued to rule through the El Niño major coral bleaching event in 1998 and the 2004 Tsunami, which caused 110 deaths and damaged 69 islands and 170 fishing vessels.66 In 2008, Mohamed Nasheed won the presidency in the first democratic elections in what had been transformed into a multiparty system. He gained an international reputation following his 2009 climate change appeals67 and his still-contested resignation in 2012. In reaction to the United Kingdom granting Nasheed political asylum, the Maldives under President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, half-brother to the former long-serving President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, elected in 2013, withdrew from the Commonwealth on October 13, 2016.

Genetic Mosaic

The monsoon trading system with a “substantial movement of people to and fro, year in and year out, over the longe durèe was undoubtedly of major significance” for the social and cultural history of the Indian Ocean world as well as for the genetic make-up of the respective local populations.68 The “possibility for shore leave mid-way” on a long cross-oceanic voyage or when waiting for the monsoon winds to turn allowed for “forming liaisons, both temporary and permanent, with the Maldivian womenfolk.”69 “The traders from Chittagong, the Malabar Coast, &c. sic! call regularly,” reported Young and Christopher, “arriving about March, and leaving with the S. W. monsoon, about July.”70 Ibn Battuta reported on the ease with which foreign crews got married on arrival and divorced their wives on departure and speaks of a mut’a kind of temporary marriage. With his six legal wives, of whom one “was with child” when he “repudiated” them on departure, and with his (non-Muslim) slave concubines, Ibn Battuta probably left his own genetic heritage. The Arab and Muslim slave trade in both sexes has undoubtedly contributed to the genetic mélange of the Dhivehin and may help to explain the comparatively few sickle-cell disease cases and carriers among the highly prevalent hemoglobinopathies in the archipelago. In the Maldives, Ibn Battuta enjoyed the company of slave girls: Anbéry, from Coromandl; Gulistán, who knew the Persian tongue; and a Mahratta slave, as well as an unspecified slave girl.71 About five hundred years later, Gardiner reported that “the crews of Arabian and Malaysian vessles ‘took temporary wives’” and that “Negro slaves were imported from Zanzibar and Jeddah.” “Caucasian slaves too were introduced for the nobles of Male” and also Burmese women for their esteemed beauty.72 Forty years later, “Zanzibar slaves” were still “occasionally imported by the Muscat vessles.”73 Another link between the Maldives and Africa is seen in bodu beru (big drum), a traditional song-and-dance style that is assumed to have been introduced by African settlers and slaves around the 12th century.74

Since the late 1990s, the molecular approach to population movements in the Indian Ocean has provided new insights into the genetic mosaic of the Dhivehin. Furuumi and colleagues provided the first study on the genetic ancestry of the Dhivehin, following the mutation traces of a blood disorder that is particularly prevalent among them.75 It is hardly known that as a small country of 340,000, the Dhivehin have to struggle with the world’s highest prevalence of beta thalassaemia. One in five Dhivehin is a carrier of a genetic variant that may cause a progressive and severe blood disorder (beta thalassaemia major) in the offspring of two carriers. The treatment and prevention of thalassaemia has far-reaching political, economic, and social consequences for the small and dispersed population of the archipelago.76 The Maldivian spectrum of beta-thalassemia gene mutations differs from those in neighboring countries and points to a multiethnic origin from other tropical and subtropical regions, where Malaria parasites have also triggered this genetic mutation over an evolutionary longe durèe.77 Some of the Maldivian mutations most probably originated in populations of Indians, Indonesians, and Melanesians; others came from Middle Eastern populations; still others derived from Portuguese or Algerian sources.78 Pijpe and colleagues investigated gene flow on a broader sample of the Maldivian population with the aim of identifying the most likely regions of origin of the Dhivehin and assessing the historical, anthropological, and linguistic accounts.79 They found that 99.2 percent of the mitrochondrial DNA genomes point to the central Indian Ocean region. Present-day Dhivehin share also 74.6 percent of Y-chromosomes with the South Asian population, but 25 percent of the paternal gene flow may derive from the western shores of the Indian Ocean, which in this study included Saudi Arabia; Qatar; Yemen, including Socotra; Oman; the United Arab Emirates; and Somalia. The Maldivian Y-chromosome pool includes a minor contribution of a haplogroup that is more frequent in the western Indian Ocean and appears only at low frequencies in South Asia, predominantly in upper-caste populations. Muslim Indians, however “did not contribute more significantly to the Maldivian ancestral population than non-Muslims . . . and the conversion of the Maldives to Islam in the twelfth century should, therefore, be seen as independent from the earlier Islamization of the Indian sub-continent.”80

The coming and going of settlers, migrants, explorers, castaways, slaves, and merchants and merchandise, religions, supernatural beings, building structures, currencies, calendars, counting and measuring systems, and scripts, as well as of old and new concerns and hazards, indicates the location of the Maldives islands at a complex set of crossroads of major historic tidal currents of the Indian Ocean.

Discussion of the Literature

In their respective times and contexts, six different sets of source materials have gained towering significance for elucidating Maldivian history. Their authors or compilers are Ibn Battuta in the 14th century, François Pyrard in the early 17th, Harry Charles Purvis Bell81 in the 19th, and Lars Vilgon and international and Maldivian academic scholars in the 20th centuries. The remote setting and the small scale of the island country and its people, however, is reflected in the meager, dispersed, and heterogeneous character and quality of the available literature. When Bell did his archaeological survey, the 1921 census listed 70,413 Dhivehin scattered over 217 inhabited islands.82 Moreover, as a contemporary Sunni Muslim society, the Republic of Maldives is not located only in a strictly geographical sense in between Arabian, African, South and Southeast Asian regional cultural influences. Likewise, scholarly attention and orientation reflects this intersection of disciplinary boundary zones. Scholars who are not above working through a patchwork of information may find one or another useful hint. Literature on the Maldives contains not merely scientific accounts and colonial and internal reports, but also discovery and travel writing, biographies, exhibition catalogues, collections of myths and folklore, coffee-table books, travel guides, collages of fragments of information and various gray papers and dedicated websites.83

Ibn Battuta’s famous Riḥla, published in countless editions and translations, provides the earliest profound documentation on the Maldives from the Islamic period. In general, the translation by Gibb and Beckingham is most frequently cited.84 For the Maldivian section of Ibn Battuta’s travelogue, however, Albert Gray’s translation from 1883 is particularly useful because of his profound knowledge of the archipelago, presented in lengthy footnotes together with additional editor’s notes by the honorary secretary.85 The Maldivian historian Mohamed Ibrahim Luthfee provided a Dhivehi edition.86 The American historian Ross E. Dunn contextualizes a third-person narrative of Ibn Battuta’s travel with rich information about the Arabic Riḥla writing genre, embedded in the medieval Islamic world and its Indian Ocean power structures.87

The early European expansion period is covered by the memoirs of the shipwrecked François Pyrard de Laval for the years 1602–1607 as the most detailed early European historical account on the Maldives. The 1887 translation is contextualized and enriched with lengthy editorial notes by Gray and Bell, the leading experts on the Maldives at the time.88

As Archaeological Commissioner of Ceylon, H. C. P. Bell excavated Buddhist structures in three of the archipelago’s southern atolls. With his archaeological surveys, detailed indexing, and editing of numerous primary resources, Bell laid the foundation for the modern scientific-historical investigation of Maldivian history. Bell’s subsequent analyses argued with reasonable justification for close linguistic and archeological relations between the Maldives and Sri Lanka in earlier periods of history, based on parallels between Sinhala and Dhivehi and on similarities in early Buddhist architecture and artifacts.89

The Swedish captain Lars Vilgon (1927–2012) became interested in the sparsely documented history of the Maldives after his retirement and visited the archipelago thirty times, beginning in 1971. Scrutinizing countless libraries and archives, autodidact Vilgon collected about 3,000 sources on the Maldives and Maliku, which he published between 1991 and 1999 in English translations in the nine-volume Maldive Odd History. This assortment together with Vilgon’s bibliography to this day provides the most exhaustive collection of source materials on the Maldives.90

A quite different category of literature is offered by various modern visiting academics and several local scholars. The foundation of linguistic analysis of Dhivehi (and Mahl on Maniku) as the southernmost expansion of the Indo-Aryan language group of the Indo-European language family was laid by the orientalist Wilhelm Geiger (1856–1943).91 Sonja Fritz provided the most comprehensive description of Dhivehi with a historical perspective, including two of the three southern dialects.92 A small online Dhivehi-English dictionary follows the Maldives’ preferred transliteration, oriented on English spelling (see “Links to Digital Materials”); in his dictionary Sinhala specialist Christopher Reynolds follows an Indologist approach in the transliteration and listing of Maldivian words.93 Ragupathy Ponnampalam provided the Etymological Dictionary of Malivian Island Names.94

Clarence Maloney produced the first sociocultural monograph, based on visits and periods of fieldwork between 1974 and 1976. Maloney emphasizes Dravidian-speaking influences and gives a collection of references to countless islands in the center of the Indian Ocean in early Buddhist texts and Sinhalese epics and chronicles.95

Andrew Forbes from the Department of Religious Studies at the University Aberdeen, Scotland, is a recommendable author, notably for his balanced and innovative assessments. He focused his analyses on Maldivian contributions within early Arab, African and Islamic contacts, and developed a special interest in local craftsmanship.96 Along with Robert H. Ellis97 and Ellen Kattner,98 Forbes also provides fairly detailed descriptions of Maliku (Minicoy, the Lakshadweep Islands, India). Edited and translated historical Arabic and Chinese sources are presented and discussed by Chandra de Silva99 and Roderich Ptak.100

Romero-Frias spent nine years in the southern atolls collecting local myths and legends. Ignored by local authorities and some parts of western academia, Romero-Frias is particularly present in electronic media, where he also presents glimpses of Maldivian research history.101 The French ethnologist Bernard Koechlin (1928–2007) was particularly interested in fishing and sailing.102

Local Maldivian historiographic investigation and production is based at the National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research (now the Academy of the Dhivehi Language), carried out by notable scholars such as Mohamed Ibrahim Luthfee, Hassan Ahmed Maniku, Naseema Mohamed, and Mandhu Mohamed Waheed.103

Certain segments of current and earlier generations of scholarship about the region were informed by a specific interest in Maldivian society and culture as they were when they had not yet come under the influences of modern tourism and political Islam. A new generation of scholars is increasingly also working on topics of contemporary concern to the Maldives as a young Muslim democracy under the threat by climate change. The proliferating publications of the most recent years cover such topics as new energy and sustainable development; population pressure; land reclamation; regional inequalities resulting in decentralization and population consolidation policies; new health issues, such as noncommunicable diseases; medical travel; political and domestic violence, and religious radicalization; human trafficking; and related aspects of relevance in view of the substantial legal and illegal expat workforce in the country.104 There is also an increasing interest in historic topics that position the Dhivehin once again as a distinct and unique people within Indian Ocean circuits. A 2016 publication, for example, highlights Maldivian coral stone mosques and their distinct, yet extinct, craft of coral stone carpentry (hiri galu vadaan).105

The use of coral stone for monumental buildings spread from the Red Sea to the littoral communities of the Indian Ocean. On the Indian and Sri Lankan coast and in the Maldives coral stone has been in use at least since the 2nd century. Combining coral stone carpentry, regional architectural mosque styles, and timber lacquer work, Maldivian coral stone mosques are unique monuments of Islamic architecture and “stand as a powerful expression of the fusion of cultures in the Indian Ocean.” The best extant examples of coral stone architecture are seen on the Swahili coast and in the Maldives.106 A UNESCO World Heritage Nomination of the Maldivian coral stone mosques is in preparation.107

The Maldives as an Indian Ocean CrossroadsClick to view larger

Figure 9. Loamaafaanu (copper-plate grant); engraving in Evela Akuru (ancient letters), displayed in the National Museum Maldives, Male’.

Photo by Eva-Maria Knoll, 2014.

Primary Sources

The earliest indigenous epigraphic records are eight Loamaafaanu, copperplate grants dating back to the onset of the Islamic period in the mid-12th century. Imitating palm leaves as the typical writing material of the wider region, the Loamaafaanu record aspects of governance, life, and the upkeep of mosques under a particular king or sultan and the succession to this throne.

Inscriptions on gravestones and mosques date back to the 15th century; and Fat-kolu, royal grants written on paper, parchment, or wood, to the 16th century. Official Maldivian historiography started in ad 1153, the official date of the country’s conversion to Islam, and features the Tarikh (Arab history), the national chronicles written in Arabic, and the Radavali, “minor, curtailed Maldivian historical work” written in local Dives Akuru or Thanaa script, interspersed with Arabic terms.108

Exhibits in the National Museum in Male’, inaugurated in 1952, include Loamaafaanu and other epigraphic records together with the country’s numismatic sources of cowry, fish-hook and coin currency, and various handicraft objects, historic artifacts of the sultans’ era, as well as sets of contemporary objects. The explorer and amateur collector Carl Wilhelm Rosset (1851–1923) around 1885,109 followed by Gardiner and H. C. P. Bell at the turn of the century, were among the first to gather relevant artifacts for museum holdings in other countries.

Maldivian ethnographic collections typically include jewelry, clothing, the highly valued lacquer work (liyelaajehun), and woven grass mats (kunaa), as well as various everyday objects and photographs. A significant historic collection is held by the National Museum in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In the United States there is a smaller collection at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. European historic collections include those at the Ethnological Museum Berlin, the University Museum Cambridge, the British Museum in London,110 and the Vienna Weltmuseum. Comprehensive collections at the Moesgård Museum of Aarhus University and at the Historical Museum in Berne were put together in the 1970s and 1980s by Annagrethe Ottovar and Nils Finn Munch-Petersen,111 as well as by Ernst Johannes Kläy and Daniel Kessler,112 resulting in 1986 in a remarkably comprehensive exhibition in Berne on the Maldives as the ideal typical heterotopy of the island paradigm.

The Academy of the Dhivehi Language (the former National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research) in Male’ provides library services and a wide range of publications. Further useful institutions in Male’ to be addressed by researchers include the Department of Heritage, the National Library of Maldives, the National Archives of Maldives and the Maldivian University. The most significant historic library outside the capital is located on the island Utheemu (Haa Alif Atoll) next to the historic residence of Sultan Mohamed Thakurufan.

Academy of the Dhivehi Language (formerly the National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research).

“English—Dhivehi Dictionary: A Guide to the Dhivehi Language”.

The Maldives National University.

National Archives of Maldives.

National Bureau of Statistics. Ministry of Finance and Treasury, Republic of Maldives.

National Library of Maldives.

Official map of the Maldives.

Forces War Records. Unit History: Royal Air Force Gan.

“About Small Developing Islands”. Information from the United Nations Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and the Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS).

Unofficial website with historic information: Maldives Royal Family website.

About atoll formation Amazing Atolls of the Maldives: Exploring How Wind and Waves Shape Coral Islands. Edited by John Weier and Robert Simmon, 2001.

Further Reading

Bell, Harry Charles Purvis. “The Màldive Islands: Report on a Visit to Málé, January 20 to February 21, 1920.” Ceylon Sessional Papers XV–1921. Colombo, Ceylon: H. R. Cottle, Government Printer, 1921.Find this resource:

Bell, Harry Charles Purvis. The Màldive Islands: Monograph on the History, Archaeology, and Epigraphy. Male’, Maldives: Novelty Printers and Publishers, 2002.Find this resource:

Bell, Harry Charles Purvis. The Máldive Islands: An Account of the Physical Features, Climate, History, Inhabitants, Productions, and Trade. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 2004.Find this resource:

Dunn, Ross E. “Malabar and the Maldives.” In The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century. Edited by Ross E. Dunn, 213–240. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Forbes, Andrew D. W. “Southern Arabia and the Islamicisation of the Central Indian Ocean Archipelagoes.” Archipel 21 (1981): 55–92.Find this resource:

Hogendorn, Jan, and Marion Johnson. The Shell Money of the Slave Trade. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Ibn Battuta. Ibn Batuta in the Maldives and Ceylon. Translated from the French of M. M. Defremery and Sanguinetti by Albert Gray, Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (1882 extra number, Colombo 1883). New Delhi: Third Asian Educational Services Reprint, 2014.Find this resource:

Jameel, Mauroof, and Yahaya Ahmad. Coral Stone Mosques of Maldives: The Vanishing Legacy of the Indian Ocean. Edited by James Steele. Los Angeles: Gulf Pacific Press 2016.Find this resource:

Knoll, Eva-Maria. “Archipelagic Genes: Medical Travel as a Creative Response to Limitations and Remoteness in the Maldives”. In “International Medical Travel.” Special Issue. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 58.2 (2017): 148–161.Find this resource:

Maloney, C. People of the Maldive Islands. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1980.Find this resource:

Mohamed, Naseema. Essays on Early Maldives (Male’, Maldives: National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research, 2008).Find this resource:

Pyrard of Laval, François. The Voyage of François Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas, and Brazil. Translated into English from the third French edition of 1619, and edited with notes by Albert Gray, formerly of the Ceylon Civil Service. Assisted by H. C. P. Bell, of the Ceylon Civil Service. In two Volumes. Vol. I. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society. Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1887.Find this resource:

Vilgon, Lars. Maldive Odd History, 9 vols. Male’, Maldives: National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research, 1991–1999.Find this resource:


(1.) Adding to the prosperity of this SIDS (small island developing state) are 859,000 square kilometers of exclusive economic rights at the crossroads of the Arabian Sea, the Laccadive Sea and the Bay of Bengal. National Bureau of Statistics, Statistical Pocketbook of Maldives (Male’, Maldives: Novelty Printers and Publishers, 2017), 6–7.

(2.) Charles Darwin introduced the indigenous term atholhu in his 1842 theory on atoll formation. In this way, the Maldivian term—in earlier sources spelled with one and later with two ls—made it into international terminology to describe a rim of coral islands and coral reefs partially or completely encircling a lagoon. In the 20th century, the twenty-six natural atolls of the Maldives were organized into administrative atolls and renamed following the alphabet of Thaana, the Maldivian script. Both listed designations are still in use (presented here from north to south; the administrative term is in parenthesis): Ihavandhippolhu, Thiladhunmathee, and Maamakunudhoo (Haa Atoll); Miladunmadulu (divided into Shaviyani and Noono Atolls); northern part of Maalhosmadulu (Raa Atoll); Maalhosmadulu south and Goidhoo, known as Horsburgh Atoll in Admiralty charts (Baa Atoll); Faadhippolhu (Lhaviyani); Male’ Atoll (Kaafu Atoll); Thoddhu, Rasdhoo, and Ari (Alifu Atoll); Felidhe (Vaavu Atoll); Mulaku (Meemu Atoll); Nilandhee (divided into Faafu and Dhaalu Atolls); Kolhumadulu (Thaa Atoll); Haddhunmathee (Laamu Atoll); Huvadhoo (Gaafu Atoll); Fuvahmulah known as Fua Mulaku in the Admiralty charts (Gnaviyani Atoll); and Addu (Seenu Atoll). Because of the heterogeneous transliteration systems, however, the orthography of these and other place names is unreliable and inconsistent.

(3.) The Nine Degree Channel borders the northern end of Maliku (Minikoy), the southernmost atoll of the Indian Union Territory of Lakshadweep, which culturally, linguistically, and historically belongs to the Maldives. Maliku Kandu (Eight Degree Channel in British Admiralty charts) runs between Maliku and the Maldives’ northernmost Haa Atoll. Kardiva Kandu separates the northern atolls from the central atolls. Huvadhoo Kandu (One and a Half Degree Channel) is the archipelago’s broadest intersecting waterway demarcating the central atolls from the southern atolls. In terms of sailing, Mulah Kandu, the Equatorial Channel, is the deepest and most demanding between the Gaafu and Gnaviyani Atolls.

(4.) Auguste Toussaint, History of the Indian Ocean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 5.

(5.) Schnepel Burkhard and Alpers Edward, eds., Connectivity in Motion, Palgrave Series in Indian Ocean World Studies (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

(6.) Albert Gray, “The Maldive Islands: With a Vocabulary Taken from François Pyrard de Laval, 1602–1607,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland n.s., 10.2 (1878): 173–209.

(7.) Naseema Mohamed, Essays on Early Maldives (Male’, Maldives: National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research 2008), 49–61.

(8.) Harry Charles Purvis Bell, The Màldive Islands: Monograph on the History, Archaeology, and Epigraphy (Malé, Maldives: Novelty Printers and Publishers, 2002), 16; Clarence Maloney, People of the Maldive Islands (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1980); and Clarence Maloney, “Where Did the Maldives People Come From?” International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter 5, 1995.

The anthropologist Clarence Maloney describes the Giraavaru as the native people of the Maldives, presumably having Tamil ancestry roots on the Malabar coast (modern Kerala). The Giaavaru predated the Maldivian Kingdom and the Buddhist era. Until the 20th century, the Giravaaru were recognizable because of physical, linguistic, and cultural differences; after their resettlement to Male’s Maafanu district in the late 1960s, however, they were assimilated into Maldivian society through intermarriage.

(9.) Mohamed, Essays, 33–42; and Naseema Mohamed, “The First Dhivehin”, Dhivehi Observer, August 17, 2006.

(10.) Andrew D. W. Forbes, “Southern Arabia and the Islamicisation of the Central Indian Ocean Archipelagoes,” Archipel 21 (1981): 55–92.

(11.) Bell, Màldive Islands: Monograph, 104–164.

(12.) Andrew D. W. Forbes, “The Pre-Islamic Archaeology of the Maldive Islands,” Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient 76 (1987): 281–288; and Mohamed, Essays. Pre-Islamic archaeology on the Maldives has unfortunately brought out iconoclastic tendencies among certain islanders. Only the severed head of a Buddha statue, for example, excavated in Thoddoo (Alifu Atoll) in 1958, arrived at the National Museum in Male’. In 2012, the small museum made international headlines when this and other Buddhist statues and pre-Islamic artifacts, some dating back to the 6th century ad, were destroyed by iconoclasts.

(13.) Harry Charles Purvis Bell, “The Màldive Islands: Report on a Visit to Málé, January 20 to February 21, 1920” (Ceylon Sessional Papers XV, Colombo, Ceylon: H. R. Cottle, Government Printer, 1921), 7–8.

(14.) Ellen Kattner, “Bodu Valu—Big Ponds: Traditional Water Management and Its Socio-cosmic Implications in Minicoy/Maliku, an Indian Ocean Island,” in Antike Zisternen, vol. 9, ed. Christoph Ohlig (Siegburg: Deutsche Wasserhistorische Gesellschaft, 2007), 145–172.

(15.) Thor Heyerdhal, The Maldive Mystery (Chevy Chase, MD: Adler and Adler, 1986).

(16.) Forbes, “Southern Arabia,” 69.

(17.) One of the oldest copperplate grant inscriptions, the Loamaafaanu from Dan’bidhoo Island from ad 1196, testifies to a gradual conversion from Male’ to the archipelago’s remoter islands and allows glimpses into the Buddhist past of the archipelago. Mohamed, Essays, 2–3, 89–100.

(18.) Harry Charles Purvis Bell, The Máldive Islands: An Account of the Physical Features, Climate, History, Inhabitants, Productions, and Trade (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 2004), 71–72.

(19.) Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 231.

(20.) Forbes, “Southern Arabia,” 60.

(21.) Andrew D. W. Forbes and C. H. B. Reynolds, “Maldives”, Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., Brill Online Reference Works, 2012.

(22.) Hassan Ahmed Maniku, “Dhevi,” Vanavaru 1 (October 1988) (Male’, Maldives: Department of Information and Broadcasting, 1988), 2–3.

(23.) Forbes and Reynolds, “Maldives.”

(24.) Maloney, People of the Maldive Islands, 242–273.

(25.) cf. Dunn, Adventures of Ibn Battuta, 232–240.

(26.) Maloney, People of the Maldive Islands, 4.

(27.) By contrast, Ibn Battuta was guided by a Maldivian pilot when he arrived safely on Kinalos Island in the northerly Malosmadulu Atoll. See Dunn, Adventures of Ibn Battuta, 230. Pilots were the indispensable local counterpart to the cosmopolitan key agents in the long-distance maritime trade of these centuries. Andre Gingrich, “Small Island Hubs and Connectivity in the Indian Ocean World: Some Concepts and Hypotheses from Historical Anthropology,” in Connectivity in Motion, ed. Schnepel and Alpers, 70–74.

(28.) François Pyrard of Laval, The Voyage of François Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas, and Brazil. Translated into English from the third French edition of 1619, and edited with notes by Albert Gray, formerly of the Ceylon Civil Service. Assisted by H. C. P. Bell, of the Ceylon Civil Service. In two Volumes, Vol. I (London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1887). Although Pyrard was shipwrecked on a northern atoll, he, like Ibn Battuta, spent most of the time on Sultan’s island, located in the very center of the archipelago. These two and most of the historical records tell us hardly anything about Maldivian island life far out from Male’. Two more recent scholarly works focus on the political and sociopolitical supremacy of Male’ over the other islands: Elizabeth Overton Colton, “The Elite of the Maldives: Sociopolitical Organisation and Change” (PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, 1995); and Mohamed Nasheed, Maldives: A Historical Overview of Traditional Dhivehi Polity 1800–1900, Orient Academic Centre Maldives Book (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Karunaratna & Sons, 2003).

(29.) Remco Raben, “European Periphery at the Heart of the Ocean: The Maldives, 17th–18th Centuries,” in International Conference on Shipping, Factories and Colonization (Brussels, 24–26 November 1994), ed. John Everaert and J. Parmentier (Brussels: Académie Royale des Sciences d'Outre-Mer, 1996), 45–60.

(30.) Lieutenant I. A. Young and Mr. W. Christopher, “II. Memoir on the Inhabitants of the Maldiva Islands 1834–1835, ” in Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society from August 1838 to May 1839, 54–112, 54.

(31.) C. W. Rosset, “On the Maldive Islands,” Journal of the Anthropological Institute 16 (1887): 164–174, 165.

(32.) British Map of the Maldive Islands, 1844, prior to Moresby’s Admiralty maps the ships of the main western trading companies, such as the British East India Company, relied on the India Directory compiled by the Scottish hydrographer James Horsburgh (1762–1836).

(33.) Young and Christopher, “Memoir on the Inhabitants,” 67.

(34.) For example, Harry Charles Purvis Bell, “Excerpta Máldiviana,” The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 30.79 (1926), Parts I., II., III. and IV., 257–270.

(35.) Bell, Maldive Islands: Monograph, publisher’s note, i.

(36.) Bell, Maldive Islands: Monograph; Bell, Màldive Islands: Report; and Bell, Máldive Islands: An Account.

(37.) T. W. Hockly, The Two Thousand Isles: A Short Account of the People, History and Customs of the Maldive Archipelago (London: H.F. & G. Witherby, 1935).

(38.) The Isma’ili Bohra community originating from Gujarat dominated Maldivian trade from the late 19th century to the early 1950s. Their mosque in Male’, the only Shi’a mosque in the Maldives, passed under Shaf’i control after their expulsion. Forbes and Reynolds, “Maldives.”

(39.) Alexander Agassiz, “Expedition to the Maldives,” in American Journal of Science 4.13 (1902): 297–308; Agassiz, “The Coral Reefs of the Maldives,” in Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy, Harvard College 29 (1903); 1–168; John Stanley Gardiner, ed., The Fauna and Geography of the Maldive and Laccadive Archipelagoes: Being the Account of the Work Carried on and of the Collections Made by an Expedition during the Years 1899 and 1900, 2 vols. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1903–1905); and Gardiner, “The Natives of the Maldive Islands,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 11 (1901): 18–21.

(40.) Twenty-six television documentaries of the Xarifa expedition were produced for Südfunk Stuttgart and the BBC. Hans Hass. The Undersea World of Adventure. Directed by Hans Hass. BBC Natural History Unit, London, 1958.; Hans Hass, Expedition into the Unknown: A Report on the Expedition of the Research Ship “Xarifa” to the Maldive and the Nicobar Islands and on a Series of 26 Television Films (London: Hutchinson, 1965); Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Land of a Thousand Atolls: A Study of Marine Life in the Maldive and Nicobar Islands, trans. Gwynne Vevers (Cleveland, OH: World, 1966).

(41.) National Bureau of Statistics, Statistical Pocketbook of Maldives, 20–21.

(42.) Abdul Sheriff, Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam (London: Hurst, 2010), 100.

(43.) Maloney, People of the Maldive Islands, 146–150.

(44.) Sheriff, Dhow Cultures.

(45.) Andrew Forbes and Fawzia Ali, “The Maldive Islands, Indian Ocean, and Their Historical Links with the Coast of Eastern Africa,” Kenya Past and Present 12 (1980): 15–20.

(46.) Roderich Ptak, “The Maldive and Laccadive Islands (liu-shan 溜‎ 山‎) in Ming Records,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 107.4 (1987): 675–694, 681. The earliest Loamaafaanu from Isdhoo Island, from ad 195, includes the directive to cover the walls of the home of one of the island’s eminent families with Chinese silk. H. A. Maniku and G. D. Wijayawardhana, Ishdoo Loamaafaanu (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Royal Asiatic Society, 1986), 23. Chinese pottery shards collected in 1974 from some cemeteries in Male’ during construction work were dated between the 9th and the 19th centuries. John Carswell, “China and Islam in the Maldive Islands,” Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society 41 (1977): 121–198; and Mohamed, Essays, 4.

(47.) Ptak, “Maldive and Laccadive Islands,” 677.

(48.) Forbes, “Southern Arabia,” map 1, p. 71.

(49.) Richard Steven Whiteaway, The Rise of Portuguese Power in India, 1547–1550, 1899, cited in Hockly, Two Thousand Isles, 64; and Bell, Máldive Islands: An Account, 26.

(50.) Male’ was and still is an entrepôt. Forbes, “Southern Arabia,” 23–82. It is the “crossroads of crossroads,” a hub—stopover, pause, redirection in the enduring networks or rhizome-like structure in the organization of transoceanic flows of cargo, people, and ideas. Adrian Neville, Malé: Capital of the Maldives (Male’: Novelty Printers and Publishers 1995), 2; cf. Gingrich, “Small Island Hubs.”

(51.) Karl Polanyi, “Ports of Trade in Early Societies”, Journal of Economic History 23.1 (1963): 30–45.

(52.) Ernst Johannes Kläy and Daniel Kessler, Trauminseln—Inselträume: Die Republik der Malediven (Indischer Ozean) im Spiegel westlicher Vorstellungen, exhibition catalogue (Bern: Bernisches Historisches Museum, 1986), 59–65.

(53.) Hockly, Two Thousand Isles, 102.

(54.) Sheriff, Dhow Cultures.

(55.) John Villiers, “The Portuguese in the Maldive Islands,” in Studies in the Portuguese Discoveries I. Proceedings of the first Colloquium of the Centre for the Study of the Portuguese Discoveries, ed. T. F. Earle and Stephen Parkinson (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1992), 17–34, 19–25.

(56.) Hockly, Two Thousand Isles, 102.

(57.) Bin Yang, “The Rise and Fall of Cowrie Shells: The Asian Story,” Journal of World History 22.1 (2011): 1–25, 18, 22.

(58.) Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson, The Shell Money of the Slave Trade (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 7, 8. In the 18th century, for example, the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Companie and the English East India Company shipped 11,436 tonnes—around 10 billion individual shells—to West Africa (58).

(59.) Bell, Màldive Islands: Monograph, 75–86; and Tim J. Browder, Maldive Islands Money (Santa Monica, CA: Society for International Numismatics, 1969).

(60.) Chandra R. de Silva, ed., Portuguese Encounters with Sri Lanka and the Maldives: Translated Texts from the Age of Discoveries (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009); and M. A. Hedwig Fitzler, “Die Malediven im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert: Ein Kapitel portugiesischer Kolonialgeschichte,” Zeitschrift für Indologie und Iranistik 10 (1936): 215–256.

(61.) Hussain Salahuddeen, The Story of Mohamed Thakurufaan, ed. and trans. by Mohamed Farook (Male’, Maldives: Novelty Printers and Publishers, 2001).

(62.) Amin A. M. Didi, Ladies and Gentlemen . . . The Maldive Islands (Maldive Islands: Ministry of External Affairs, 1949).

(63.) James Minahan, “Suvadivians: Huvadu”, Encyclopedia of the Stateless Nations: Ethnic and National Groups around the World, vol. 4, S–Z. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002), 1799–1802.

(64.) Eva-Maria Knoll, “Considering the Island Capital Male’ as a Hub for Health-related Mobilities,” in Connectivity in Motion, ed. Schnepel and Alpers, 319–343, 319–322.

(65.) P. Jambulingam and K. Krishnamurthy, “Elimination of Lymphatic Filariasis in Maldives: A Success Story,” in Health in South-East Asia,SEARO Newsletter 7.1 (2014): 12–13; and World Health Organization, Malaria-Free Maldives (New Delhi: World Health Organization Regional Office for South-East Asia, 2016).

(66.) Hussain Zahir et al., “Post-Tsunami Status of the Coral Reefs of the Islands and Atolls of the Maldives,” in Status of Coral Reefs in Tsunami-Affected Countries: 2005, ed. Clive R. Wilkinson, David Norman Souter, and Jeremy Goldberg (Townsland: Australian Institute of Marine Science, 2006), 111–123.

(67.) Nasheed was not the first Maldivian president to put the threat of rising sea levels for the Maldives and other small islands states on the international agenda, but he undoubtedly had the strongest media presence. Nasheed’s talk at the Summit on Climate Change, United Nations Headquarters, New York City, in 2009, and at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, December 7–18, 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and his spectacular underwater cabinet meeting are captured in the movie The Island President, 2011 directed by Jon Shenk, Samuel Goldwyn Films.

(68.) Sheriff, Dhow Cultures, 100.

(69.) Forbes, “Southern Arabia,” 80.

(70.) Young and Christopher, “Memoir on the Inhabitants,” 82.

(71.) Ibn Battuta, Maldives and Ceylon, 23–24, 31–36.

(72.) Gardiner, Natives, 18–19.

(73.) Young and Christopher, “Memoir on the Inhabitants,” 58, 82.

(74.) Forbes and Ali, Historical Links, 19.

(75.) H. Furuumi et al., “Molecular Basis of β‎-Thalassemia in the Maldives,” Hemoglobin 22.2 (1998): 141–151.

(76.) Eva-Maria Knoll, “Blood and Other Precious Resources: Vulnerability and Social Cohesion on the Maldive Islands,” in Small Countries: Structures and Sensibilities, ed. Ulf Hannerz and Andre Gingrich (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 213–235.

(77.) Naila Firdous, Stephen Gibbons, and Bernadette Modell, “Falling Prevalence of Beta-Thalassaemia and Eradication of Malaria in the Maldives,” Journal of Community Genetics 2 (2011): 173–189.

(78.) Furuumi et al., Hemoglobin, 148–149.

(79.) Jeroen Pijpe, Alex de Voogt, Mannis van Oven, Peter Henneman, and Kristiaan J. van der Gaag, “Indian Ocean Crossroads: Human Genetic Origin and Population Structure in the Maldives,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 151 (2013): 58–67.

(80.) Pijpe et al., 65.

(81.) Bell, Màldive Islands: Report; Bell, Màldive Islands: Monograph; and Bell, Máldive Islands: An Account.

(82.) Bell, Maldive Islands: Monograph, 14.

(83.) For example, Crowe, “Maldive Islands”; Royston Ellis, A Man for All Islands: A Biography of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Maldives (Singapore: Times Editions, 1998), 121; Andrew Forbes, Maldives: Kingdom of a Thousand Isles (Hong Kong: Odyssey Guides, 2004);, Adrian Neville Malé: Capital of the Maldives (Male’, Maldives: Novelty Printers and Publishers 1995); Neville, Dhivehi Raajje: A Portrait of Maldives (Seoul: Samhwa Printers, 2011); and Paul A. Webb, Maldives: People and Environment (Bangkok, Thailand: Media Transasia, 1988).

(84.) Ibn Battuta, The Travels of Ibn Battuta, 4 vols., trans. H. A. R Gibb and F. Beckingham (London: Hakluyt, 1958, 1962, 1971, 1994), vol. 4, 822–846, 865–867.

(85.) Ibn Batutta, Ibn Batuta in the Maldives and Ceylon, trans. from the French of M. M. Defremery and Sanguinetti by Albert Gray, Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (1882 extra number, Colombo 1883) (New Delhi: Third Asian Educational Services Reprint, 2014).

(86.) Mohamed Ibrahim Luthfee, Ibn Batuta Dhivehi Rajjeegai (Male’, Maldives: National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research, 1991).

(87.) Dunn, Adventures of Ibn Battuta.

(88.) Pyrard, Voyage.

(89.) Bell, Maldive Islands: Monograph; Bell, Màldive Islands: Report; and Bell, Máldive Islands: An Account.

(90.) Lars Vilgon, Maldive Odd History, 9 vols. (Male’, Maldives: National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research, 1991–1999). Lars Vilgon, Maldive Islands and Minicoy Bibliography (Male’, Maldives: National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research, 2001). Additional bibliographies and a listing of archives and source materials were provided by Andrew D. W. Forbes, “Archives and Resources for Maldivian History,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 3.1 (1980): 70–82; and Thomas Malten, Maldives and Laccadives: Materials for the Bibliography of the Atolls in the Indian Ocean [in German] (Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1983); and, primarily on works readily available in English by Christopher H. Reynolds, 1993. Maldives. World Bibliographical Series, vol. 158 (Oxford and Santa Barbara: Clio Press Ltd., 1993).

(91.) Wilhelm Geiger, “Máldivian Linguistic Studies,” trans. J. C. Willis, ed. H. C. P. Bell, Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 27 (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1996). (Original published in 1919.)

(92.) Sonja Fritz, The Dhivehi Language: A Descriptive and Historical Grammar of Maldivian and Its Dialects (Würzburg, Germany: Ergon Verlag, 2002).

(93.) Christopher Reynolds, A Maldivian Dictionary (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003).

(94.) Ragupathy Ponnampalam, An Etymological Dictionary of Maldivian Island Names, with Naseema Mohamed (Male’, Maldives: National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research, 2008).

(95.) Maloney, People of the Maldive Islands.

(96.) Forbes, “Southern Arabia”; and Andrew Forbes and Ali Fawzia, Weaving in the Maldive Islands, Indian Ocean: The Fine Mat Industry of Suvadiva Atoll (Occasional Paper No. 9, London: British Museum, 1980).

(97.) R. H. Ellis, A Short Account of the Laccadive Islands and Minicoy (Madras, India: Government Press, 1924).

(98.) Ellen Kattner, “Bodu Valu—Big Ponds”

(99.) de Silva, Portuguese Encounters with Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

(100.) Ptak, “Maldive and Laccadive Islands.”

(101.) Xavier Romero-Frias, Folk Tales of the Maldives (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2012); and Romero-Frias, The Maldive Islanders: A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom (Barcelona: Nova Ethnographia Indica, 2003).

(102.) See Bernard Koechlin, Bateaux et modes de pêche aux Maldives, documentary film, 50 min., CNRS Images, 1979.

(103.) Luthfee, Ibn Batuta Dhivehi Rajjeegai; Maniku, “Dhevi”; and Mohamed, Essays. In 2011 the Maldives National University was established by uniting various former colleges, such as the College for Higher Education, which included the National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research, and educational institutions that had begun operating in the 1990s. The roots of the higher-education sector in the Maldives go back to the Allied Health Services Training Centre established with World Health Organization support in 1973.

(104.) For example, Emma Fulu, Domestic Violence in Asia: Globalization, Gender and Islam in the Maldives (London: Routledge, 2014); Muna Mohamed, Falhu Aliran Muiy (Male’, Maldives: Novelty Printers and Publishers, 2016); and J. J. Robinson, The Maldive: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy (London: C. Hurst, 2015).

(105.) Mauroof Jameel and Yahaya Ahmad, Coral Stone Mosques of Maldives: The Vanishing Legacy of the Indian Ocean, ed. James Steele (Los Angeles: Gulf Pacific Press, 2016).

(106.) Jameel and Ahmad, Coral Stone Mosques, 49–50, 70.

(107.) “Exploring the History of Unique Mosques,” The Aga Khan University, accessed September 29, 2017,

(108.) Bell, Màldive Islands: Monograph, 165–204, 198. For translations of epigraphic records, see also Fritz, Dhivehi Language; Mohamed, Essays; and Maniku and Wijayawardhana, Ishdoo Loamaafaanu.

(109.) Rosset, “On the Maldive Islands,” 165.

(110.) Forbes and Ali, Weaving in the Maldive Islands.

(111.) Annagrethe Ottovar and Nils Finn Munch Petersen, Maldiverne; Et Øsamfund I Det Indiske Ocean (Copenhagen: Kunstindustriemuseet, 1980).

(112.) Kläy and Kessler, Trauminseln—Inselträume.