Although the Maldives was located in a geographically remote area, there are historical records of the islanders interacting with some of the greatest human civilisations of the time. The Maldives first became known in the West through the writings of Ptolemy, during the A.D. 2nd century. Roman historical records of A.D. 362 mention of a Maldivian delegation visiting Emperor Julian. A notice written by Ammianus Marcellinus speaks of gifts sent to Emperor Julian by a delegation from the nation of Divi. The name Divi is very similar to Dheyvi who were the first settlers of Maldives.

Persians began trading with the Maldives about the seventh century.The Maldives were visited by the Chinese in 9th and 15th centuries. In 1518, the Portuguese claimed the islands. From 1665 to 1886, the Maldives were a dependency of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In 1887, they became a British protectorate. Overseas travellers from far-off lands have contributed immensely to the Maldivian history through publishing their experiences. Such noteworthy chronicled contributions from Chinese historian Ma Huan and the famous Arab traveller Ibn Batuta have survived to this day.

In the ancient and medieval periods navigating the precarious Maldivian waters were a challenging affair. Consequently many shipwrecks occurred. One such shipwreck resulted in the French navigator François Pyrard of Laval enduring a Maldivian adventure from 1602-1607. Pyrad’s chronicle which was published in 1611 portrays a detailed insight on the life of Maldivians.

Between 1887 and 1965, the Maldives was a British protectorate governed loosely as part of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Britain did not interfere much with the internal affairs of the country. The British Royal Air Force operated an airfield on the Gan island of Addu Atoll during World War II. Later this airfield became Gan International Airport, the gateway to the southern region of the country. The Maldives otherwise was little affected by World War II. The Italian auxiliary cruiser Ramb I was sunk off Addu Atoll in 1941.

Maldives Sultunate

After Dhovemi, the last Buddhist king of Maldives, converted to Islam in the year 1153 he adopted the Muslim title and name of Sultan Muhammad al Adil, initiating a series of six dynasties consisting of eighty-four sultans and sultanas (female sultans) that lasted until 1932 when the sultanate became elective. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994]

Islam helped the Maldives establish trade links throughout the Indian Ocean and beyond. The importance of the Arabs as traders in the Indian Ocean by the 12th century may partly explain why the last Buddhist king if the Maldives converted to Islam. The formal title of the sultan up to 1965 was, Sultan of Land and Sea, Lord of the twelve-thousand islands and Sultan of the Maldives. [Source: Wikipedia]

A total of 92 sultans ruled over the Maldives (and a few sultanas) for 800 years from 1153 to 1953. They grew rich through their trade links throughout the Indian Ocean. There were sultanas. Perhaps the greatest Maldives leader was Sultan Iskandar Ibrahim I, who reigned for nearly 40 years during the 17th century and commissioned the building of Hukuru Miskit — the main mosque on Malé Island — in 1674. Except for a brief period of Portuguese occupation from 1558-73, Maldives remained independent at least in name. From the 14th century, the ad-Din dynasty ruled the Maldives.The sultan agreed for the Maldives to be protectorate under the Dutch and British in exchange for relative independence.

Although governed as an independent Islamic sultanate for most of its history from 1153 to 1968, the Maldives went through various Islamic and European phases. The Portuguese controlled the islands from 1558 until their ouster in 1573. The Dutch held the island Sultanate as a protectorate in the seventeenth century. The British held the same position as the Dutch following their takeover of Sri Lanka and the ouster of the Dutch from there. The Maldives were a British protectorate from 1887 until July 25, 1965. In 1953, there was a brief, attempt to establish a a republican form of government, but the sultanate was quickly re-instated. Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to operate for another three years. On November 11, 1968, it was officially abolished and replaced by a republic. [Source: Leena Banerjee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001; “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2006, Thomson Gale]

Chinese, Bengalis and Cowrie Shells in the Maldives

The Maldives may have been ruled in ancient times by the Chinese. Chinese historical documents from A.D. 662 records Maldivian king sending gifts to the Chinese emperor Kao-Tsung of Tang dynasty. The Maldives were visited by the Chinese in 9th and 15th centuries. [Source: Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation ]

Cowrie shells from the Maldives were sought after by ancient cultures and were used in China as well as Africa and Bengal as currency. The Maldives were the main producer of cowrie shells (Cypraea sp.) that were used as a currency. In China, cowries were so important that many characters relating to money or trade contain the character for cowry. Starting over three thousand years ago, cowry shells, or copies of the shells, were used as Chinese currency. The Classical Chinese character for "money/currency", originated as a pictograph of a cowrie shell.

The Bengal Sultanate in what is now eastern India and Bangladesh was also interested in cowrie shells. There cowrie shells were used as legal tender, was one of the principal trading partners of the Maldives. The Bengal–Maldives cowry shell trade was the largest shell currency trade network in history. The Maldives received rice in exchange for cowry shells.

Zheng He in the Maldives

Zheng He (also known as Chêng Ho, Cheng Ho, Zheng Ho, and the Three-Jewel Eunuch) — the great Chinese eunuch navigator, whose achievements as an explorer rank with those of Columbus and Magellan --- visited the Maldives in the early 15th century Zheng Ho (pronounced “jung huh”) embarked from China with a huge fleet of ships and journeyed as far west as Africa, through what the Chinese called the Western seas, in 1433, sixty years before Columbus sailed to America and Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa to get to Asia. Zheng also explored India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Arabia with about 75 times as many ships and men as Columbus took with him on his trans-Atlantic journey.

Zheng He’s expedition visited the Maldives on it fourth voyage 1413-1415 when the main fleet went from Sumatra to Sri Lanka and then followed the east Indian coast to the Persian Gulf while a secondary fleet — the one that went to the Maldives — either went from Sri Lanka to the Maldives and then east Africa or perhaps went straight across the Indian Ocean to east Africa, stopping at the Maldives along the way.

The Maldives were called "Liushan Guo" or "Liuyang Guo" in Chinese history. In 1412, during the reign of Yongle Emperor in the Ming Dynasty, the great a fleet of merchant ships under the eunuch navigator, Zheng He reached Maldives for the first of two trip. After that the Sultan of the Maldives sent his envoys three times to China. In “Foreign Splendors” by Zheng He and his his historian Ma Huan and “Maritime Marvels” by Fei Xin, the Maldives are described in detail, with records of Maldives' geographical position, climate, products and customs. Chinese porcelain and coins unearthed in the Maldives are on display in the Male Museum. According to the Chinese government all this is “a witness to China's friendly contacts and trade relations with Maldives in history. Due to the imperialist invasion afterward, Sino-Maldives relations were suspended for several centuries.” [Source: China Daily, August 19, 2009]

Zheng He's sailing charts, the Mao Kun map, were published in a book entitled the Wubei Zhi (A Treatise on Armament Technology) written in 1621 and published in 1628 but traced back to Zheng He's and earlier voyages. Investigation into folios 19V to 20R of the Mao Kun Map which covers the Indian Ocean including South India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and East Africa suggests that it is a composite of four maps, one for Sri Lanka, one for South India one for the Maldives and one for around 400 kilometers of the East African coast, no further south than 6 degrees south of the Equator. Each of these maps is positioned at a different orientation to fit with the ocean currents and winds required of a sailing chart, rather than a formal map. The analysis also suggests that Arabic-speaking pilots with a detailed knowledge of the African coast were involved in the cartography. [Source: Wikipedia]

Portuguese in the Maldives

In 1558, the Portuguese defeated Sultan Ali VI and established themselves on Maldives, which they administered from Goa on India's west coast. Fifteen years later, a local guerrilla leader named Muhammad Thakurufaan (Thakurufar Al-Azam) organized a popular revolt that staged a daring attack in the middle of the night and drove the Portuguese out of Maldives. This event occurred in Rabeeu'l Awwal, the first month on the Islamic Calendar, and is now commemorated as National Day. A small museum and memorial center honor the hero on his home island of Utim on South Tiladummati Atoll. The Maldives have not ben invade since the departure of the Portuguese, [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994]

The first known European to discover and visit the Maldives was the Portuguese traveler Dom Lourenço de Alameida, in 1507. Portuguese presence in the Maldives was established in 1558, by order of Constantino of Braganza, Viceroy of Portuguese India. the Portuguese established a small garrison with a Viador (Viyazoru), or overseer of a factory (trading post) in the Maldives,

The Portuguese forced the Maldivians to pay a tribute to Goa, the center of Portugal's South Asian holdings. Their attempts to impose Christianity provoked a local revolt led by Muhammad Thakurufaanu al-A'u am and his two brothers. After the Portuguese were driven out in 1573 Muhammad Thakurufaani al-Azam became sultan. He introduced a monetary system, a new script, and a standing militia. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Dutch in the Maldives

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch, who had replaced the Portuguese as the dominant power in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), established hegemony over Maldivian affairs without involving themselves directly in local matters, which were governed according to centuries-old Islamic customs. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The Dutch took over Sri Lanka after driving the Portuguese out between 1656 and 1658. They had initially been asked by the kingdom of Kandy to get rid of the Portuguese. The result: the Dutch replaced the Portugese with themselves. In Sri Lanka, the Dutch were more concerned with the bottom line and making profits than the Portugese. They introduced the Roman-Dutch legal system and established plantations for coffee, cotton and tobacco in the central highlands, They were unable to win many converts to Protestantism. In the Maldives, Roman-Dutch legal plantation agriculture were not imposed presumably because Islamic law prevailed and there was no place for coffee, cotton and tobacco plantation.

The Dutch made a treaty with the sultanate, which required the Maldives to pay tribute to the rulers of Ceylon in return for “protection”. When Ceylon fell to the British in the 18th century so too did the protection arrangement it had with the Maldives.

British in the Maldives

The British expelled the Dutch from Ceylon in 1796 and included Maldives as a British protected area. The status of Maldives as a British protectorate was officially recorded in an 1887 agreement in which the sultan accepted British influence over Maldivian external relations and defense. The British had no presence, however, on the leading island community of Male. They left the islanders alone, as had the Dutch, with regard to internal administration to continue to be regulated by Muslim traditional institutions. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Britain became involved in the Maldives as a result of domestic issue in which settler community of Bora merchants, who were British subjects in the 1860s, were attacked. Rivalry between two dominant families, the Athireege clan and the Kakaage clan was resolved with former forming an alliance with British authorities in Ceylon. According to the 1887 agreement the sultan of the Maldives accepted British influence over Maldivian external relations and defence while retaining home rule, which continued to be regulated by Muslim traditional institutions in exchange for an annual tribute. The status of the islands was akin to other British protectorates in the Indian Ocean region, including Zanzibar and the Trucial States (the present-day United Arab Emirates). [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”:“The British completed their occupation of Ceylon in 1815 and British responsibility for the protection of the Maldives was formally recorded in 1887. By terms of the compact, the sultan recognized the suzerainty of the British sovereign and disclaimed all rights or intention to enter into any treaty or negotiations with any foreign state except through the (British) ruler of Ceylon.” The Maldives remained a British crown protectorate until 1953 when the sultanate was suspended and the First Republic was declared under the short-lived presidency of Muhammad Amin Didi. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 ++]

“When Ceylon became independent in 1948, a new agreement was signed with the British government, providing for the Maldives to remain under the protection of the British crown, for external affairs to be conducted by or in accordance with the advice of the British government, for Britain to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the islands, and for the sultan to afford such facilities for British forces as were necessary for the defense of the islands or the Commonwealth. No tribute was to be paid by Maldives. New agreements reaffirming these provisions were signed in 1953, 1956, and 1960.” ++

Sultanate of the Maldives in the British Era

During the British era from 1887 to 1965, Maldives continued to be ruled under a succession of sultans. In the early 20th century, Sultan Mohammed Shamsudden was deposed . The sultans were hereditary until 1932 when an attempt was made to make the sultanate elective, thereby limiting the absolute powers of sultans. At that time, a constitution was introduced for the first time, although the sultanate was retained for an additional twenty-one years. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In the British period, the Sultan's powers were taken over by the Chief Minister, much to the chagrin of the British Governor-General who continued to deal with the ineffectual Sultan. Consequently, Britain encouraged the development of a constitutional monarchy. In 1931, the sultan and his advisors put together a constitution with the help of the British but based on laws and principals that were part of the Maldivian system for eccentricities. The first Constitution was proclaimed in 1932. However, the new arrangements favoured neither the aging Sultan nor the wily Chief Minister, but rather a young crop of British-educated reformists. As a result, angry mobs were instigated against the Constitution which was publicly torn up. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1953 the sultanate was briefly suspended and the First Republic was declared under the short-lived presidency of Muhammad Amin Didi. This first elected president of the country introduced several reforms. While serving as prime minister during the 1940s, Didi nationalized the fish export industry. As president he is remembered as a reformer of the education system and a promoter of women's rights. Muslim conservatives in Male eventually ousted his government, and during a riot over food shortages, Didi was beaten by a mob and died on a nearby island. *

After the short period as a republic in 1953, the Maldives became a sultanate once again. The country became a republic again in 1968. The Maldives regained full sovereignty and independence in 1965. The newly independent country changed from a Sultanate to Republic on November 11, 1968.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Republic of Maldives Department of Information, the government site (, Ministry of Tourism Maldives (, Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC,, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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