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History of the Maldives

The Maldives have been inhabited for a long time; however it is uncertain when the first people arrived. What is known is that the people today are related to the people of India and Sri Lanka and it is most likely that earlier settlers arrived from these locations, most likely India. For much of this early history the islands have been fairly united and their major source of income and export was cowrie shells, which were used as a currency in much of Asia.

In about the 200s BC Buddhism was introduced to the Maldives and this religion, and aspects of it strongly influenced the culture and people for the next 1400 years. However, due to few remains from this time period and tradition buildings being made of wood, sadly there is little known history from this time, outside a couple dozen religious monuments from this time. Despite this, the culture to this day has strong Buddhist aspects in the form of architecture, behavior, and customs.

In the 1100s AD Islam was introduced to the Maldives, although again little is known about the conversion. Modern day history books (written by the Muslim people today) claim prior to Muslim arrival the people were backward and nothing else is mentioned, while the supposed conversion to Islam was welcomed, although evidence suggests it was a bloody struggle.

The arrival of Muslims to the islands most likely came from the Middle East. As a center of trade in the Indian Ocean a number of people had contact with the Maldives and it is likely that people from the Middle East arrived through these passageways to either convert the people or to gain access to their cowrie shell trade, which also demanded their conversion.

The Maldives' rule of trade with India, Sri Lanka, and much of Asia and East Africa ended with the arrival and domination of the Indian Ocean by the Europeans in the 1500s and 1600s. This began with the Portuguese arriving in 1558, but about 15 years later the people revolted and the Portuguese left. Shortly after this the Dutch took control of the Maldives foreign affairs, but left domestic affairs alone, establishing better relations than the Portuguese had.

In 1796 the British had taken India and soon made their way south to the Maldives, making it an official British protectorate about a century later in 1887, however, like the Dutch only controlled their foreign relations.

In 1932 the Maldives adopted a Constitution, but this document was essentially written to support those who supported the British and soon it had been destroyed as both the Sultan and the Chief Minister remained in limbo with power being undefined. This state continued until 1953 when the Sultanate position (an elected position) was overthrown and a republic was created.

This new government introduced a number of liberal reforms, such as expanded education and further women's rights. However this alienated conservative Muslims and soon the government was overthrown. This led to the sultanate and British military presence to guarantee peace. The most notably addition from these events were that the British received a military presence on the southern islands for a term of 100 years. The successive government sought to alter this agreement, but the people on the southern islands greatly benefited from British presence so rebelled in 1959, starting a new country called the United Suvadive Republic, which lasted until 1963.

In 1965 the Maldives gained full independence from the United Kingdom, but allowed the military base to remain. This new republic abolished the position of sultan and went into effect in 1968. Although some positive changes were implemented, in the 1970s the economy struggled as exports to Sri Lanka declined and the United Kingdom abandoned their air base. In 1978 the government leaders were overthrown and new leadership was brought in. These new leaders focused on international cooperation, the development of the nation's poor, and increasing tourism to the islands.

Since this time though the government hasn't truly allowed free and fair elections and most political parties have been banned, although a change in the presidency occurred in 2008. Despite this, most people seem to agree with the government's policies, although numerous attempted coups have taken place since the 1980s.

This page was last updated: July, 2012