Comment: Ages of ice and spice

In his book The Maldive Mystery, Thor Heyerdahl mentions the discovery of neolithic pottery on Male atoll. The shards were sourced to northwest India where they had been manufactured around 2000 BC or earlier, and many assumed that people from the subcontinent carried the original pots to Maldives.

It is more likely any traders visiting Maldives at that time were Indonesians using an ancient network of sea routes emanating from the Indonesian Spice islands and servicing markets in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

After analysing recent research in the diverse fields of ‘oceanography, traditional histories, physiology, genetics, geology and vulcanology, ship hydrodynamics, global climate history and palaeodemography,’ Charles and Frances Pearce in their book Oceanic Migration claim that seafarers from Halmahera island in Indonesia developed trans-oceanic vessels and navigational and horticultural skills during thousands of years of spice trading. This lucrative business led them to harness major sea currents in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and to colonise uninhabited islands. They were the ancestors of the Polynesians.

The Pearces assert that these trader-settlers discovered routes to Japan, Hawaii and the Americas by exploring West Pacific Warm Pool sea currents. Halmahera was directly on the equator in an ancient sea between the Sunda and Sahul continents. When the last Ice Age covered much of the northern hemisphere with massive ice sheets and freezing tundra, this area remained warm and fertile, supporting the most diverse plant and animal life on the planet.

Halmahera was not only a centre for the development of spice trade maritime technology and navigational expertise; it was also a hub for migration and the intercontinental transfer of plants, animals and horticultural knowledge, according to the Pearces. Around 5500 BC, when Sunda and Sahul lost their lowlands in a devastating flood, the new geography created by higher seas provided even more demand and opportunities for Halmaheran skills.

Maldives would have looked very different before the flood. The southern equatorial lagoons, shallower than those in the north, had been exposed for tens of thousands of years. Vegetation would have flourished in these sheltered basins and on the surrounding coral ramparts formed during previous high sea level periods. The rocky walls of Maldives must have been visible far out to sea, and equatorial atolls were excellent environments for the cultivation of large coconuts and other plants useful to the Indonesians and their customers.

Twenty thousand years ago during the peak of the last Ice Age, when sea levels were over 120 metres lower, Sri Lanka and India formed a single landmass and Gujarat extended far out to the west. The Persian Gulf was a fertile valley draining down into open lowlands. Dry land linked Africa and Arabia around a long lake in the deepest part of the Red Sea.

Halmaherans must have discovered the westerly route to Maldives and Chagos while following the southern equatorial current flowing from Indonesia to Africa past Madagascar. The current churns both north and south after hitting the African coast. The northern section splits again, offering spice traders the alternative of cruising straight home on the easterly Indian Counter Current, or striking out northwards along the Monsoon Drift to Arabia, the Middle East and eventually India. All these return journeys take them past Maldives.

After an Ice Age of cold winds up to 70 percent stronger than today, and equatorial sea surface temperatures as low as 25 degrees celsius, ocean sailing became more comfortable about ten thousand years ago, according to research cited by the Pearces. Conditions were particularly pleasant from 4000 BC until 1000 BC – a three thousand year period when underwater volcanic activity in Indonesia raised some sea surface temperatures to 35 degrees celsius.

This was ideal for long distance maritime trading and the Indonesians linked with ports supplying expanding markets in Egypt, the Middle East, India and China. Halmaherans were remarkably adapted for long voyages. Their genetic resistance to cold and famine exceeded even that of the Eskimos. The Pearces believe the hardiness of the Halmaherans and their Polynesian descendants was the result of many thousands of years of Ice Age sea travel.

Indonesian spices were readily available in the Middle East by 1721 BC and probably much earlier. Before 1000 BC, seven American plants, including maize, lima bean, phasey bean and Mexican prickle poppy, were introduced to India via routes that often bypassed China. Custard apples and pineapples also appeared in the Middle East no later than the 700-500 BC. At least forty useful American plants had been established in India by 1000 AD.

Halmaheran visits to the Maldivian atolls are a likely source of legends about ancient seafarers called Redin who preceded the Dhivehi speakers. The Redin often returned, appearing from a variety of directions to cruise through the atolls. Sometimes they stayed on an island before sailing off again in fast vessels.

The Pearces suggest that the Halmaherans also helped supply the Old World elite with American drugs such as coca leaves (or a derivative) and tobacco. Tests on nine royal Egyptian mummies, dated from 1070 BC to 395 AD, revealed that all nine had taken coca and cannabis while they were alive, and eight had used tobacco.

Though royalty may have partied on their wares, no powerful kingdom supported the Halmaherans. They survived primarily through their sailing, trading and horticultural skills. When Arab, Indian, Chinese and Malay pirates invaded the Spice Islands in 76 AD and established rival trading stations, the Halmaheran monopoly disappeared.

Before that invasion, spice trading had boomed along land and sea routes between the Roman and Chinese empires. Indonesian adventurers could earn a livelihood by simply riding a raft loaded with cinnamon along the southern equatorial current to Africa. Roman writer Pliny the Elder described their exploits two thousand years ago:

‘They bring their cargo over vast seas on rafts which have no rudders to steer them or oars to push or pull them or sails or other aids to navigation; but instead only the spirit of man and human courage. What is more, they put out to sea in winter, around the time of the northern winter solstice, when the east winds are blowing their hardest. These winds drive them on a straight course… they say that these merchant-sailors take almost five years before they return, and that many perish. In exchange, they carry back with them glassware and bronze ware, clothing, brooches, armlets, and necklaces.’

Cinnamon barges might be useful for one-way deliveries, but Halmaheran outriggers were much faster and capable of sailing almost anywhere. In 2003, Englishman Philip Beale and a team led by Indonesian shipbuilder Saad Abdullah on the Kangean islands north of Bali constructed a nineteen metre double outrigger inspired by 8th century AD relief carvings of Halmaheran vessels on the Borobudur temple. Beale and fourteen crew sailed the bamboo and wood ship, built without nails, from Java to Seychelles in 26 days. From there, they went south around the Cape of Good Hope and up to Ghana.

Cultural and economic change swept over Maldives in the first centuries AD. It transformed a frontier visited by Indonesian traders and subcontinental fishermen into a thriving export economy replete with monarchy, militias, slaves, monks and temples. Sri Lankan shipping and Buddhist business culture were the sources of much of this transformation, and its basic drivers were Bengali and Chinese consumer demand.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: The inappropriate history of early Maldives

Maldives National Museum, a multi-million dollar gift from the Chinese government, had only just been opened in 2010 when a local visitor protested loudly to staff that its Buddhist era sculpture was a modern forgery. A few days before, this writer had difficulty finding a Maldivian official willing to be photographed in a museum storage room full of Buddhist/Hindu sculpture awaiting installation in the exhibition hall.

Maldivians are not alone in finding their history uncomfortable. Take for example the current efforts in some states of the USA to suppress and distort history textbooks concerning American slavery and the Civil War, or the refusal by many European Australians to accept the reality of the attempted genocide of the Aboriginal people. In the UK, the crucial story of Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War has been sidelined, and the importance of slavery for the British empire and its aristocratic investors has only recently been acknowledged.

Responsibility for local ignorance of Maldives’ history lies in part with the country’s writers.  Indigenous historians such as Hassan Maniku and Naseema Mohamed have written detailed English accounts of Buddhist era Maldives based on historical records and archaeological research, but little of their work has been translated into Dhivehi. Excellent books about the origins of Maldivian culture by Clarence Maloney and Xavier Romero-Frias cannot be purchased in Maldives, and have not been translated for Dhivehi readers.

Only the British colonial administrator and archaeologist H. C. P. Bell has been given official recognition. This was due to Bell’s collaboration and friendship with Atirige Ibrahim Didi. He and his descendants and relatives basically ruled Maldives until the middle of the 20th century.

Bell’s research in 1922 verified the Buddhist nature of many Maldivian ruins, but formal recognition of his findings did not occur until the 1980s as part of a government effort to cultivate support among Ibrahim Didi’s descendants, who remain an important and respected part of the modern Male’ elite.

Recognition of Bell’s work was not accompanied by digestion of his findings and, for many Maldivians, the pre-Islamic past remains as mysterious as it was in 1922. It is still possible to read contemporary articles that claim Maldivian history is ‘lost in the mists of time’ – a hollow phrase since those mists began to clear ninety years ago.

The six hundred year period before the official Islamic conversion of 1153 seems to have been a prosperous period, and it is likely the country experienced strong population growth. Despite the collapse of the Roman empire, the economic sun was still shining in the Indian Ocean. Sea trade between the Middle East and China boomed, and Persian and Arab navigators were not afraid to sail the mid-ocean routes to Indonesia and China through Maldives.

The recent discovery of what has become known as the Tang treasure ship in Indonesia finally silenced historians who claimed there was no real evidence of these trade routes. The shipwreck also adds weight to written records that traders utilised Maldivian island ports and channels between the atolls.

Arab navigator Ahamad Ibn Majid, writing in 1490, traced the sources of his Indian Ocean sailing knowledge to the South Indian Chettiar navigators who preceded the Persians and Arabs. Arab navigators gave sailing directions to many ports in Maldives, as far south as Huvadhu atoll, Fua Mulak and Addu. Since the Pole Star was once higher off the northern horizon than it is now, early Indian Ocean navigators could find latitudes for these atolls without difficulty.

Modern research supports those few historians who have suggested that Indian Ocean trading extended back at least to the era of the Indus Valley and Mesopotamian civilisations. Cloves have been found inside a kitchen pottery jar at the home of Puzurum, a land-agent living in Syria on the Euphrates river around 1721 BC. This spice must have come from Indonesia, or more exactly, from five tiny islands off the west coast of Halmahera.

Charles and Frances Pearce, in their book Oceanic Migration published in 2010, assert that spice traders based on islands between the ancient land masses of Sunda (Asia-western Indonesia) and Sahul (New Guinea-Australia) have been crossing the open sea for at least 40,000 years. For much of that time, scientific research indicates the oceans were lower, the currents stronger and the sea surface temperature up to 5 degrees celsius higher.

Over the last ten years, according to the Pearces, ‘genetic research has established… Halmahera as the ancient Polynesian homeland.’ They argue that Spice Island traders following ‘three of the four major fast warm currents flowing out of what oceanographers call the West Pacific Warm Pool were able to traverse vast ocean distances. In two periods, separated by a global cold period between 1000 BC and 400 BC, they followed these currents west to Madagascar and East Africa, north to Japan, Hawaii and America and south to New Zealand.’

The Pearces’ thesis has similarities to Thor Heyerdahl’s claims that ancient seafarers crossed the globe, with the important difference that they were based in Indonesia rather than the Americas. This has interesting implications for the Maldives, and suggests that people from Indonesia were visiting the atolls, and perhaps living here, well before its settlement from the subcontinent.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


How the US discovered the Maldives in the aftermath of 9/11

Before 2002, Maldives was over the horizon and off the radar of the American embassy in Colombo charged with following Sri Lankan and Maldivian affairs. Busy with the Sri Lankan civil war at its doorstep, the embassy kept no representative in Maldives. Following the 2001/9/11 attacks, US anti-terrorism responses required the Colombo embassy to fully engage with Maldives for the first time. The US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that it was a discomforting experience for both parties.

US officials wanted an interactive relationship with a government controlled for over two decades by President Maumoon Gayoom. After 24 years of his rule, the American diplomats knew almost nothing about him and his administration. Regardless, the US expected Maldives to enact anti-terrorism laws and sign an Article 98 agreement making Maldivian-US prisoner exchange procedures immune from the International Criminal Court. There was also the matter of Ibrahim Fauzee, a Maldivian terrorist suspect being held at Guantanamo Bay.

In December 2001, the embassy praised Maldives as ‘extremely cooperative in its dealings with the international coalition.’ The brief period of extreme cooperation was followed by a long hiatus.

Nearly a year later, ‘during coffee breaks and over lunch’ at a counter terrorism conference in Washington, US officials were told by Maldivian delegates that terrorist legislation was held up because Maldives ‘does not even have a formal criminal code and needs further assistance developing the legal framework for countering terrorism.’

In fact, Maldives has had a criminal code since 1968, which was updated in 1981. A broad anti-terrorism law had been ratified by President Gayoom in 1990. However, mention of administrative and legal inadequacy brought immediate rewards after the conference, with the US financing ‘two slots to the Maldives Law Commission to attend the Tulane University Legislative Drafting course in New Orleans.’

The Maldivian delegates also described a ‘back log’ of legislation awaiting ‘refinement’ by their Law Commission, including ‘a securities act, a telecommunications act, a customs act and a civil aviation act.’ The embassy could not assess this information. Similarly, details of a minor cabinet and diplomatic corps reshuffle by Gayoom in October 2002 were cabled by the embassy without comment or analysis.

Effective lobbying from Ibrahim Fauzee’s family prompted the Maldivian government in November 2002 to request access to him at Guantanamo Bay. For the US, Fauzee’s detention seemed to reinforce the importance of counter-terrorism legislation. It was time for a serious meeting.

In December 2002, US officials sat down with senior Maldivians in Male and demanded that Maldives sign an Article 98 agreement. Sri Lanka had already signed in November, and the US was impatient for Maldivians to comply. States that refused were being removed from US Aid programs.

This time the Maldivians did not blame the delays on bureaucratic ‘back log’ or the absence of a legal system. Rather, it was President Gayoom’s busy travel schedule, and the need for ‘weighing whether the U.S. proposal “conformed with Maldivian law” and was in the country’s “foreign policy interest”.’

The Maldivian officials linked consent to an Article 98 agreement with a request from Gayoom to meet with President George Bush. Gayoom would ‘deeply appreciate the honor of even a very short meeting… [He] was up for re-election next year and, as a politician, a meeting with President Bush was especially important to him at this time.’

At the December 2002 meeting the Maldivians learned that access to Fawzy in Guantanamo was being granted. The US seemed keen to have Maldivian security officers question him. In its cable, the embassy admits it had collected information about Fawzy ‘that surfaced on the anti-GoRM [Government of the Republic of Maldives] website “Sandhaanu”.’

The meeting’s final item was the desire of the Maldivian government for continued Least Developed Country (LDC) status, due for review by the UN Committee for Development Policy in April 2003. Maldives ‘would appreciate strong US support on this issue, as it had received in the past.’

In these secret negotiations, the US and Maldivian positions were clear: The Americans wanted an Article 98 agreement immediately, while Gayoom wanted cheap loans and a photo opportunity with Bush before the Maldivian Presidential referendum. Both countries wanted to question Ibrahim Fawzy when it was convenient.

During their stay in Male, US officials also took a keen interest in politics and subversion trials. In a second cable about the December visit, the Americans reported discussions with government officials and others about the 2003 Presidential referendum. The acting Indian High Commissioner ‘revealed Gayoom maintained strong support in a Majlis stocked with family members and close friends.’

The attorney-general Mohamed Munavvar told US officials that ‘Mohammed Zaki, Ahammaadhee, and Ibrahim Luthfee, all Maldivian nationals, had been convicted of subversion in July and sentenced to terms ranging from 15 to 25 years in prison… The objective of the group, according to Munavvar, was to undermine President Gayoom’s government and replace it with some sort of Islamist regime.’

This cable did not mention the actual reason for the subversion charges against the three men – the production of the emailed magazine Sandhaanu and its website – the same website used by the embassy to gather intelligence information on Fawzy.

Munnavvar confirmed to US officials that ‘Ibrahim Fareed, a Muslim cleric from Male was under arrest. Fareed would be tried soon on charges of disturbing “religious harmony”. Munavvar thought that Fareed would probably be convicted and sentenced to four years imprisonment. He said Fareed’s offense involved repeated sermons in which he asserted that the government was not following Islamic law. It was not clear whether Fareed had international connections, but he had studied in Qatar.’

The reality was that Ibrahim Fareed’s sermons were more a threat to religious apathy than harmony, for which the attorney general was predicting a four year sentence.

When asked about the banning of the Monday Times magazine, the attorney general ‘denied that the magazine had been banned, but he admitted that the government had urged its publisher not to print it any longer.’

US officials learned that ‘Gayoom, his family, and his allies hold virtually all of the top government jobs, and they also control most of the lucrative commercial enterprises.’ The officials noted that ‘a brittle response to the so far gentle requests for further democratization could provoke opposition.’

The embassy did not question the severity of the sentences handed out to Zaki, Ahammaadhee, and Luthfee, while Mohamed Bushry and his publisher and father-in-law Zahir Hussein (a long-term close friend and supporter of Gayoom) faced no charges or lengthy prison sentences for their efforts with the Monday Times.

The Gayoom government’s provocative responses ‘to the so far gentle requests for further democratization’ raised no misgivings among the US representatives, and they decided the President’s ‘grip on power seems solid into the foreseeable future.’

Undemocratic Maldivian political processes and human rights abuses aside, over the next few months the embassy remained focused on an Article 98 agreement.

In January 2003, the Maldives foreign minister Fatulla Jameel assured the US ambassador that Maldives considered an Article 98 agreement almost superfluous. ‘The Maldivian government would never turn over a U.S. national to the International Criminal Court,’ said Jameel. ‘The Maldivian government would not sign the ICC treaty and would not respect its claim to universal jurisdiction.’

In March 2003, the US invaded Iraq. The Colombo embassy reported there were no demonstrations in Maldives against the war, and that ‘government-controlled’ Haveeru was carrying reports of events without comment.

An article 98 agreement was ready for signing as the invasion occurred, but there were further delays for the impatient US embassy which was ‘in close and constant touch with the Maldivian government, pressing it to sign the non-surrender of nationals agreement as soon as possible… The Maldivians have, so far, made it very clear to us that they want Jameel to be the principal who signs the document for their side.’

The agreement was eventually enforced by Gayoom’s executive decree, but not before a US official suggested that ‘bureaucratic confusion leading to inertia in the government… is endemic’ in the Maldives. The problems were within the Majlis and administration, which as the embassy knew, were controlled by ‘Gayyoom, his family and his allies’. In such an environment, delays could be due to connivance as much as ineptitude.

With the Article 98 agreement finally concluded, US officials in July 2003 promoted the payoff to Maldives, namely a positive response to a request for continued Least Developed Country (LDC) status. ‘Embassy strongly believes meeting this modest request will go a long way towards reassuring the Maldives that their recent helpfulness to us (Article 98 signature, support for the war on terrorism) is not unrequited.’ Military and other diplomatic considerations were also listed in support of the LDC favour.

To be truly convincing, the embassy’s geo-political and great buddy arguments required an additional economic impact analysis. A US delegation spent three days in Male in July, where they heard first from foreign minister Fathulla Jameel, his senior officials and the Indian High Commissioner. All argued that continued LDC status would protect the country from ‘the threat of Islamic extremism’.

The US visitors were treated to meetings with other government officials and their associates, who repeated the same lines. The foreigners learned that Male had ‘a population density 50 percent greater than that of Manhattan’ and there were ‘vast inequalities in wealth between residents of Male and those of the outer atolls’ where many Maldivians lived in poverty. ‘Some NGO officials said 20 percent of the population is estimated to live on less than one USD a day.’ Maldives had 200 inhabited islands, the US officials discovered, and they heard tales of high atoll development costs and many unemployed young people, but these facts were not enough to change the delegation’s forgone conclusions.

Though LDC status was not delivering on the 199 inhabited islands outside Male, the US embassy cable chorused Gayoom officials and proclaimed ‘the development of the Maldives continues to hinge on the international aid and favorable trading agreements it receives as a result of its LDC status.’

That same month, the status of Ibrahim Luthfee, convicted subversive emailer and Sandhaanu producer, was raised with the embassy by ‘a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection officer… [who] stated that Luthfee’s case was under review to determine possible refugee status. Pending the outcome of this review, UNHCR planned to contact Mission to ascertain possible resettlement in the U.S.’

The embassy’s understanding of Luthfee’s case was blinkered. It knew he was involved in ‘a website that carried anti-GoRM information.’ The embassy repeated what it had been told by Gayoom’s officials: ‘This individual, Ibrahim Luthfee, was convicted along with two other Maldivian nationals of subversion in July 2002 and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. In explaining the long sentences, the Maldivian government had told us that the three were extremists bent on overthrowing President Gayoom’s government and replacing it with an Islamic state.’

Though they were happy to parrot a condemnation of Luthfee, the Americans seemed not to be aware that Maldives was already officially an Islamic state. Nor did the Americans share Gayoom’s belief in the extraordinary powers of Sandhaanu. The US officials noted without concern that the previous year it ‘carried some anti-U.S. and pro-Al-Qaeda content’, and many months later ‘the website is still in operation’.

In August 2003, the US embassy repeated the predictions of its informants in Maldives, reporting that ‘Gayoom and his ruling circles seem to be relatively popular’ with the proviso that ‘there are no polls, so this perception is anecdotal.’ Gayoom had ‘the wind of solid economic indices behind his back’, and this was expected to overcome criticism of the ‘only marginally democratic presidential selection process, which has chronically produced non-competitive races in the past.’ The US embassy suggests that ‘this system might well have to be adjusted and opened up.’

The same month, two senior Maldivian security officers questioned Ibrahim Fauzee at Guantanamo. The Maldivian officers reported the results of their interrogation to US officials in Colombo, and the embassy then distanced Fauzee from suspicious activities. He was ‘residing briefly in an apartment whose owner apparently had a tertiary connection to an individual who had connections to Al-Qaida/Taliban elements,’ according to their cable.

The Maldivian interrogators revealed that Fauzee had travelled to Pakistan from Maldives via Kenya in early 2000, staying in Kenya 10-12 days waiting for a Pakistani government No Objection Certificate. Maldivians travelling to Pakistan usually obtained these certificates in Sri Lanka, the Maldivian officers said. Also, Fauzee would not reveal the source of the US$1200 used to purchase his air ticket to Kenya, and he ‘claimed not to remember his activities during his time in Kenya.’

Nevertheless, the embassy cable exonerated Fauzee: ‘he did not subscribe to Islamic extremist thinking and he expressed sadness about the September 11, 2001, attacks.’ The Americans raised no objections when the Maldivian officers said that Fauzee would not likely face any charges should he be returned to the Maldives.’

Above all, the return of Fauzee would make Gayyoom’s government happy, and ‘in his 25 years in power, President Gayoom’s regime has been no friend of extremism, locking up a number of Maldivians who it felt strayed too far from the government-imposed moderate Islamic orthodoxy.’

For old times sake, and in recognition of those Maldivians already incarcerated, Fawzy was to be returned, freed and forgiven. It was curious behaviour from both the Maldivians and the Americans, given their proclaimed fear of Al-Qaeda-style Islamic extremism. Fauzee may have been only the friend of a friend with ‘connections to Al-Qaida/Taliban elements’ but he, and young Maldivians like him, were closer to real extremism than the jailed Maldivian emailers and the preacher facing 4 years in prison.

On September 15, the embassy continued to claim that there was ‘little sign of serious political dissonance’. Three days later the embassy cabled, without comment, a full copy of the 2003 Human Rights Report for the Republic of Maldives. It included a devastating critique of the Maldivian justice system and the powers of the President: ‘The Constitution does not provide for an independent judiciary, and the judiciary is subject to executive influence. In addition to his authority to review High Court decisions, the President influences the judiciary through his power to appoint and dismiss judges, all of whom serve at his pleasure and are not subject to confirmation by the Majlis.’

Before Gayoom had a decent opportunity to deny everything, there was a devastating display of social disorder on the weekend of September 20 and 21, with a torture death and mass shootings at Maafushi jail and riots in Male directed against government buildings and property.

On 23 September 2003, two days after the violence, the US embassy critically analysed Maldivian government statements for the first time. ‘These unprecedented riots were apparently triggered by mistreatment of prisoners but quickly mushroomed into a broader expression of discontent. Maldivian officials are quick to assert that the disturbances are not connected to the just-launched Presidential selection process, although we find it interesting that the Elections Commission was one of the buildings put to the torch.’