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.

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