Located just southwest of the southern tip of India lies one of the only countries in the world consisting solely of coral atolls.
Unlike similar countries, which are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, this country has a location and proximity which has given it a unique history.
It also faces a unique set of problems given geography and geology.
Learn more about the Maldives, its past, present, and future, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The Republic of the Maldives is located in the Indian Ocean, about 430 kilometers at its closest point from India and 700 kilometers from Sri Lanka.
It is an archipelago of 26 coral atolls that stretch in an approximate north-south line over a range of 800 kilometers, with 1,194 islands.
Even though the country stretches over such a wide area, the total amount of land is only about 300 square kilometers or 120 square miles. To put it into perspective, it is slightly smaller than the nation of Malta.
There are only four countries in the world that consist entirely of coral atolls, and I have previously done episodes on the other three: Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands.
The Maldives, which shares many traits with those other countries, also had a very different history due to the fact that it is relatively close to a major populated area and not in a remote area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Before I continue, I want to reiterate the reality of living on a coral atoll.
Many people see photos of palm trees and white sand beaches and think that such a place must be paradise. Indeed the photos look really nice, and they are, in fact, great places to visit.
Think for a moment about what a coral atoll is, and you can reference the past episode on Charles Darwin’s theory of coral atoll formation.
Atolls result from former volcanoes that have subsided and coral that grew around the volcano. When the volcano totally sinks below the surface, what is left is a ring of coral.
The islands are made almost entirely out of calcium carbonate, which is also what the white sands on the atolls are made of.
That means that there is literally else in terms of mineral resources. No iron, no copper, no anything.
Oh, and freshwater is going to be extremely hard to come by, and agriculture is going to be very difficult because there is no real soil.
There is no lumber beyond palm trees. There are no wild animals on the islands beyond some birds.
Manufacturing is difficult because everything has to be imported, including fuel and raw materials, and then has to be shipped out. There also isn’t a lot of space for factories if they wanted to build them.
So, that is the reality of life on a coral atoll and something you should keep in mind the next time you view the lovely images of overwater bungalows.
The history of the Maldives is part of the broader history of South Asia.
According to legend, the first people to settle in the Maldives arrived there around 3,000 years ago. They arrived by boat from what is believed to be southern India.
There isn’t a lot we know about the first Maldivians. Atolls don’t lend themselves to layers of buried artifacts as they do on continental land. Much of what we know are legends that have been passed down.
The first settlements may not have been very permanent. They could have been outposts for use while fishing or maybe sites that were abandoned after initial settlement.
The first real evidence of permanent settlements dates back to about 300 BC with the first Maldives Kingdom, the Kingdom of Dheeva Maari.
While the atolls didn’t have much in the way of resources, they did have something which would provide value for centuries. The Maldives was strategically located on trade routes between Arabia, Persia, Southern India, and East Asia.
In the 4th century, there are reports of a delegation from the Maldives who sent an emissary to deliver gifts to the Roman Emperor Julian.
The initial religion of the ancient Maldivians was Hinduism, as was the case with much of Southeast Asia. Indian traders brought the religion with them as they traded throughout the region.
However, Buddhism later became the dominant faith around the 3rd century BC. The Buddhist period in the Maldives lasted almost 1,400 years.
The strategic position of the Maldives made it a location for many notable travelers from history, including the great Islamic traveler Ibn Batuta and the Chinese admiral Zheng He, both of whom I’ve done previous episodes on.
Perhaps the biggest historical change in the Maldives was the conversion of King Dhovemi, the last Buddhist King of the Maldives, to Islam in 1153. The Maldives actually coverted to Islam rather late compared to other Islamic countries.
Having converted to Islam, King Dhovemi changed his title to Sultan and adopted the name, Muhammad al Adil.
This was the beginning of what would be almost 800 years of Islamic royal dynasties which ruled the Maldives. There were six dynasties consisting of eighty-four sultans who ruled the Maldives up through 1968.
The official title of the sultan was Sultan of Land and Sea, Lord of the twelve-thousand islands and Sultan of the Maldives.
As with every other country in the region, the Maldives found Europeans on their shores.
The Portuguese were the first to arrive in the Maldives in 1558. It was a colony that was administered out of their Indian colony in Goa. They attempted to impose Christianity in the Maldives, and it didn’t go over well.
There was a popular revolt organized by a local leader named ??Muhammad Tha-ku-ru-faa-nu al-A’u?am that ended up driving the Portuguese out of the Maldives.
Al-A’u?am is considered a hero in the Maldives and the expulsion of the Portuguese is celebrated as the national day in the Maldives today.
A century later, the Maldives came under the Dutch sphere of influence who controlled the island of Ceylon, today known as Sri Lanka, but they didn’t try to control domestic affairs as the Portuguese did.
The Dutch were ousted from Ceylon in 1796 by the British, who then assumed the Maldives as a protectorate.
Like the Dutch, the British mostly left the Maldives to run local affairs under Islamic law. The status of a protectorate with the British became codified in 1887.
In 1932, the position of Sultan was changed from a hereditary one to an elected position.
After World War II, the process of decolonization reached the Maldives. In 1952, Sultan Majeed Didi died, the position was offered to Mohamed Amin Didi, but he declined the position.
Because they had no sultan, a referendum was held which turned the Maldives into a republic. Muhammad Amin Didi, the man who refused the job, was then elected as the first president of the Maldives with 96% of the vote in January 1953.
His tenure didn’t last very long becaue he was overthrown in a military coup in August of that year. The Maldives had another referendum and this time reversed the previous referendum, reestablishing the sultanate, with 98% of the vote.
The new sultan, who now took the title king, was Muhammad Fareed Didi, who took office in 1954.
In 1965, the Maldives officially achieved independence and joined the United Nations that same year.
In 1968, the Maldives had yet another referendum on becoming a republic and this time voted to end the monarchy with 81% of the vote. The Maldives is still a republic today.
Today the Maldives has a population of about 530,000 people depending on which estimate your use.
That means that the Maldives has the third highest population density of any country in the world, behind only Monaco and Singapore.
Almost half of the population of the Maldives lives in the capital city of Male. With only 8.30 square kilometres or 3.2 square miles of land, and a population of over a quarter million people, it is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
I highly recommend you look at an aerial image of Male if you can. Almost every square inch of land is taken up with buildings. It is, in some ways, rather impressive.
The primary language in the Maldives is Dhivehi, which is closely related to Sinhala, which is spoken in Sri Lanka. However, due to the economy of the country, English is heavily spoken.
With regards to economics, the Maldives’ economy used to be a very simple subsistence economy based on cowry shells, fishing, and coconut fiber as their only export. In the early 1970s, the Maldives was one of the poorest countries in the world.
Of the 1,194 islands in the country, only 189 have people living on them. This meant that over 1,000 islands with white sands and turquoise blue water were available for development.
It was in 1972 that the Maldives began to develop their tourism industry. The first resort in the country was the Kurumba Resort just north of the city of Male.
Today, tourism is the largest sector of the Maldivian economy by a wide margin. There are currently 132 resorts in the Maldives which service 1.2 million tourists every year.
There are approximately two dozen resorts under construction and recent upgrades to the airport now allow for up to 7.5 million passengers per year.
One of the reasons why the Maldives is able to get so many tourists is because of its location. The strategic position of the Maldives used to be because it was in the middle of trade routes, today makes the country accessible from Europe, the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia.
The other atoll countries get almost no tourism, despite how attractive their islands are, becuase they are so far away and difficult to reach.
I can’t talk about the Maldives without talking about one of the biggest issues facing the Maldives and other atoll countries, sea level rise.
The highest point in the entire countries is only 2.3 meters, or 7.5 feet above sea level. The average elevation is only 1.5 meters.
Even a slight rise in sea levels would eliminate most of the land in the country.
During the 2004 tsunami, six islands were completely destroyed, and fourteen more rendered uninhabitable, which gives an indication just how vulnurable these islands are.
The Maldives has been at the forefront raising awareness of this issue. One possible plan is to use tourism proceeds to purchase land for the population to move to in India or Australia.
The Maldives is a great place to visit. I was there in 2018 after a trip I made to Sri Lanka. Most of the resorts are all on relatively small islands and you get the feeling of being on a remote island in the middle of the ocean….because you are.
Most people who visit the Maldives have no clue about the country’s history. To them, it is just beaches and bungalows. However, this archipelago in the Indian Ocean has a rich history that dates back thousands of years, which is something more people should familiarize themselves with before they go on holiday.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Statto88, over on Apple Podcasts in Great Britain. They write:
This is a great podcast, always informative. As a Brit, I often find Gary’s pronunciation of British place names hilarious. But the episode on cricket is definitely an American’s view of the greatest game on Earth.
Thanks, Satto! I don’t mean to violate your privacy, but according to my schedule, I’m very proud of my episodes on vitamins and aluminum. I think they serve as a great advertisement for the podcast. In fact, I might do future episodes on herbs, fish fillets, and maybe even aubergines. If you don’t like it, please don’t throw tomatoes.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.