Archaeological finds indicate that the Maldives was inhabited as early as 1500 BC, however, much of the country’s origin is lost in history. Throughout her known history the Maldives has been an independent state, except for a brief period of 15 years of Portuguese occupation in the 16th century. The Maldives became a British Protectorate in 1887 and remained so until 26 July 1965. The independent Maldives reverted from a Sultanate to a Republic on 11th November 1968. The first written constitution was proclaimed in 1932.
It is believed that the most important factor that contributed to the settlement of people in the Maldives is its geographical location. Massive ruins and other archaeological remains found in the atolls and islands bordering the Equatorial Channel and the One and a Half Degree Channel in the sound, bear testimony to the fact that people of antiquity had indeed come upon the country during their travels. It is believed that permanent settlements were established around 500 BC by Aryan immigrants from the Indian subcontinent who are believed to have colonised Sri Lanka at the same time, (around 500 BC). Many customs, traditional practices and superstitious beliefs that still prevail in the country also attest to the influence of the early Dravidian culture of the Maldives.
As legends and history proclaim, the outside world influenced Maldivian life significantly. Although it is most probable that early Maldivians were Buddhists or Hindus migrating from the Indian subcontinent, the archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl, who carried out extensive archaeological research in the Maldives and has contributed significantly to the theories of the origins of the country, stated that some of the figures unearthed from ancient mounds bore a striking resemblance to figures he had investigated on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. Many of these theories, however, are still a matter of controversy.
The greatest contribution made by the Persian and Arab Travellers was the conversion of the Maldivians to Islam in 1153 AD. Dhivehi (Maldivian language) also underwent a certain conversion as a result of contact with the outside world. Perhaps blending rather than converting better describes the evolution of Dhives Akuru (earlier Dhivehi orthography) to Thaana, the present-day script. The writing of Thaana is from right to left, unlike Dhives Akuru, probably to accommodate the many Arabic words in everyday use then.
The accounts of travellers, who had stopped over (for supplies and because of shipwrecks) as the Maldives is located along the ancient marine trade routes from the West to the East, also serve as useful guides to the history of these small islands. Among these travellers were the Chinese historian Ma Huan and the famous Arab traveler Ibn Batuta. It is also understood that the Maldivians themselves ventured far beyond their own shores; Pliny, for example, states that Maldivian emissaries bore gifts to the Roman Emperor.
Islam – the present state religion of the Maldives is believed to have been a contribution made by the Persian and Arab Travellers for whom the Maldives became an important stop on their way to the Far East. The legend of how the predominantly Buddhist Maldives converted to a 100% Muslim nation is still a most popular one albeit a matter of recent controversy. Popular belief is that a Moroccan scholar and traveller, Abu Barakaat Yusuf Al-Barbaree was responsible for the advent of Islam in the country; however another version credits a renowned scholar from Tabriz – Sheikh Yusuf Shamsuddin. The Friday Mosque or Hukuru Misikiy which dates to 1656 contains wood carvings that give accounts of the conversion of the Maldives to Islam. The surrounding courtyard houses the tombstones of past rulers.
Since very early times, the Maldives has remained famous for two main products – sea shells and tuna. During the time when the cowry shell (cyprea moneta) was prized as a form of currency in many areas of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, large quantities of cowrie shells were exported from the country to many parts of the world. Foreign traders would stop over bringing rice, spices and luxury items in exchange for shiploads of cowry. Maldive fish, which keeps for a long time without any change to its flavour or texture, was also very popular among traders who stopped over at the Maldives. It was an ideal source of protein for carrying on long voyages and its rarity rendered it a prized delicacy in most parts of the Indian subcontinent, where it remains a major ingredient in many dishes even today.
Although the Maldives was by far and large a quiet, peaceful port for traders, the tranquillity of the islands was often disturbed by pirates and superpowers of the day. Though her brave sons saved the Maldives from most of the attackers and invaders in a very short time, the Portuguese invaded and reigned in the country for a period of fifteen years before they were overthrown by Maldivian heroes. A French sailor – Francois Pyrard de Laval, who was shipwrecked in the Maldives and stayed on for five years, recounts the events of this time in his chronicles.