Written by Ali Assad
Take a swim in the pages of recent history of Maldives and drift with time.
Historically, Maldives was a favourite stop-over on the busy marine trade routes & had strategic importance because of its location in the Indian Ocean. Maldivians traded with Arabia, China and India with coconut, coir rope, dried fish, ambergris and above all the precious cowry shell, used throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast as a currency.
For the opportunistic colonial powers, Maldives was an opportunity too good to let go. And during 16th century after many failed attempts Portuguese finally succeeded invading Maldives by defeating the heroic Sultan Ali VI (Ali Rasgefaanu). The brutal reign of the Portuguese continued for 15 years and ultimately decreed that all Maldivians must convert to Christianity or face the same fate as their previously martyred Sultan. This was timely intervened by Maldivian hero Mohammed Thakurufaanu, who started a series of guerrilla raids, culminating in an attack on Male’, in which the Portuguese were defeated and their alcoholic leader Andhiri Andhirin was killed.
Later, in 1752, Malabari pirates from the nearby south Indian Coast yet again seized the Maldivian throne. However, within four short months Maldives regained control under the leadership of the locally renowned Dhon Bandaarain.
In 1857, a settler community of Borah merchants, who were British subjects, arrived in Maldives. They slowly, but firmly gained a foothold in the Maldivian economy – eventually monopolising the smaller and bigger trade interactions. It took more than a century to ban Bora merchants from continuing any trade interactions in the Maldives.
When colonial powers took over much of the trade in the Indian Ocean, first the Portuguese, and then the Dutch, and the French occasionally meddled with the internal politics. Nevertheless, these interferences halted when Maldives became a British Protectorate in the 19th century.
The British colonial ambitions in the Indian Ocean effected Maldives profusely. The prospect of Maldives being under any other colonial power was utterly unacceptable to them.
In an 1887 agreement, the British pledged to protect the Maldives from any foreign aggression while the Maldives in turn agreed not to collaborate with any other foreign power without their consent. Also, the British were also not to interfere with the internal affairs of the Maldives. During the Second World War, the British built a military base in Gan of Addu Atoll and Kelaa of Thiladhunmathi Atoll. The bases were evacuated after the war.
During the British era, which lasted until 1965, Maldives continued to be ruled under a succession of sultans. Britain encouraged the development into a constitutional monarchy, resulting in the first Maldivian Constitution being proclaimed in 1932. Alas, the new arrangements favoured neither the Sultan nor the Chief Minister, but rather a young crop of British-educated reformists. As a result, most locals got fed up with the Constitution and eventually it was publicly torn up.
British interests in the Maldives revived again during the late 1950s. The British were successful, to conclude an unofficial agreement for the lease of Gan in Addu for 100 years at a yearly rent of measly 2000 pounds, which not so surprisingly, considered by many to be a bribed deal. This agreement signed in 1956 provided Gan as an airfield and allowed British to resettle the population to other nearby Islands. It also included the provision of 440,000 square metres on Hithaddoo for a radio installations communication centre for the British.
When Ibrahim Nasir was elected Prime Minister in 1957, he immediately called for a review of the agreement, for the benefit of his people, demanding that the lease be shortened and the annual payment increased.
This was followed by a very timely revolt against the Maldivian government by the inhabitants of the southern atolls of Addu and Huvadhoo, believed to be propagated by the British. As a consequence, a separate government was formed and an independent state declared in the name of ‘United Suvadheeb Republic’.
Due to the cunning, strict, and unfaltering diplomacy from Nasir, the Maldivian government got a substantially better deal from the British. That is a 30-year lease period at a rate of 100,000 pounds a year plus 750,000 pounds to finance specific development projects.
To handle the resurrection, Nasir sent gunboats from Male’ and crushed the rebellion in the southern atolls. The leader of the separatist rebellion, Abdullah Afeef, under the protection of the British fled to Seychelles aboard the British warship “HMS Loch Lomond”, then a British colony.
Maldives ultimately became completely sovereign and an independent state on 26 July 1965.
The fiercely independent, hardworking and friendly small population of about a hundred thousand Maldivians were able to alter their fate from Diego Garcia, British Palestine which was later turned into Israel or other divisions like India Pakistan.
Note: Please read the next article “Selling or developing Maldives?” for a better understanding of the topic. #SaveFaafu