History

Since very ancient times, the Maldives were ruled by kings (Radun) and occasionally queens (Ranin). Historically Maldives has had a strategic importance because of its location on the major marine routes of the Indian Ocean. Maldives’ nearest neighbours are Sri Lanka and India, both of which have had cultural and economic ties with Maldives for centuries. Maldives was the main source of cowrie shells, then used as a currency throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast.

Despite being omitted or just mentioned briefly in most history books, the 1,400 year-long Buddhist period has a foundational importance in the history of the Maldives. It was during this period that the culture of the Maldives as we now know it both developed and flourished.

18th-century map by Pierre Mortier of The Netherlands depicting with detail the islands of the Maldives.

After the 16th century, when European colonial powers took over much of the trade in the Indian Ocean, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch followed by the French occasionally meddled with local politics. However, these interferences ended when the Maldives became a British Protectorate in the 19th century and the Maldivian monarchs were granted a good measure of self-governance.

Maldives gained total independence from the British in 1965. However, they continued to maintain an air base on the island of Gan in the southernmost atoll until 1976. The British departure in 1976 at the height of the Cold War almost immediately triggered foreign speculation about the future of the air base. Apparently the Soviet Union made a move to request the use of the base, but the Maldives refused.

The greatest challenge facing the republic in the early 1990s was the need for rapid economic development and modernization, given the country’s limited resource base in fishing, agriculture and tourism. Concern was also evident over a projected long-term rise in sea level, which would prove disastrous to the low-lying coral islands.