The Suvadive Revolt - Addu 1959


by Michael O'Shea and Fareesha Abdulla

Abdullah Afif Didi

On the final night of 1958 a violent mob of men from Addu rose in revolt against the Maldivian government.

The trouble began in Hithadhoo where island chief Abdullah Afif Didi had been instructed by the Addu atoll chief to announce the new Maldivian government taxes on dhoanis and distribute the bills among the fishermen. Both the atoll chief and Afif Didi were aware that combined with the Maldivian government's insistence that Adduans were banned from working at the Gan British military ba
se, the meeting would more than likely lead to trouble, but they were under direct orders from the Maldivian Government Representative in Colombo, Ahmed Zaki, who had flown into Gan the day before.

As the British on their base settled down to some serious New Year's Eve celebrating, Hithadhoo was seething with the rumours of the new taxes.

Ahmed Zaki's instructions, on behalf of the Maldivian government, had instantly united the interests and anger of Addu fishermen, traders, and workers against rule from Malé, and Zaki's presence itself became a symbol of their oppression.

For many of the men it was obviously time for action. Nearly thirty of them were awaiting serious charges and possible exile for recent illegal trading and violent confrontations with officials.

Ahmed Zaki had the tax bill and a letter which he had received from Malé. The letter said that the people of Addu were not allowed to trade, nor go anywhere near the ships or the British people. And the people who were working at Gan would not be receiving the wages they were owed.

Maldivian laborers unloading ship at Gan 1959 Photo: The Times

'I knew I had to do something - 'Men have to deal with life's problems.' I found out the bills were in Afif Didi's house, to be distributed at night,' says one of the men. 'When my wife realised what I was going to do she grabbed me by my shirt collar. She was Afif Didi's cousin. So I left my shirt for her to wash, and pretended to go to the bathing area in the backyard.

'I jumped over the wall and went to Afif Didi's house. His mother was there and I had great respect for this woman, she was my 'sister'. She asked me why I was walking around without a shirt. I told her I'd been to the beach and had forgotten to wear a shirt, and just called in to say hello.

'Afif Didi was unwell, sitting in a chair, shivering and wearing a cardigan. I went to a table where the pile of tax bills lay, and loaded them into the front of my mundu. It was now nearly 8 p.m. and people were gathering for the meeting in the public square directly outside Afif Didi's house. I moved into the crowd and threw the tax bills into the air so everyone could take one. I told them this was what they were going to get tonight.

Afif Didi came out then, stood in front of a table and started reading aloud the bill by the light of a tilly lamp. I pushed through the people towards Afif Didi, others were telling me to grab the paper from Afif Didi. Afif Didi finished reading and asked the people if they understood. I yelled 'NO!' and told him to read it again.

Afif Didi stated to repeat the announcment, but before he said more than a few words I tore the paper from his hands, crumpled it, and threw it onto the sand and stamped on it. Calmly, Afif Didi asked me not to do that, calling me by my formal name. He reminded me of the punishment that he himself had received in the 1940s, and how painful it would be. But I ignored him. The crowd was very angry and yelling, and friends of Afif Didi's who were standing close by, took him out of the crowd and back into his house.

The people then selected one of us as leader and urged him on. We decided to attack the Gan Liaison office and get Ahmed Zaki. So we ordered everyone, big or small, to get the dhoanis ready for Gan, and sent another group of 10 people to get support in Hulhudhoo-Meedhoo because we knew there would be people there who would want to join us. We also sent a dhoani to Feydhoo to tell the people there we were on our way to Gan.

We argued over when we should leave. Some wanted to wait until daylight, but others insisted that it wasn't a good idea because the British soldiers would be able to see and easily prevent us from landing. In the dark we'd be able to sneak in. So it was decided to go immediately.'

Meanwhile Abdullah Afif Didi hurried to the RAF station in southern Hithadhoo and sent a message to Ahmed Zaki, warning him of the mob's plans. The organisers of the revolt were unaware of this.

eyewitness accounts of the revolt's beginnings completely exonerate the British and Abdullah Afif Didi from any involvement with the initial violence. Far from being the rebellion's leader, Afif Didi opposed the actions of the crowd, and took no part in the subsequent attack on the Gan Liaison office.

Although he was sick and feverish, Afif Didi personally escorted the mob's target, Maldivian Government Representative Ahmed Zaki, to safety aboard a British naval vessel anchored in the lagoon.

The violence at Gan
maldives shark
Ahmed Rasheed was a Maldivian government officer sleeping at the Gan Liaison office when the mob arrived. His account confirms the unprepared confusion at the base:

'I was deeply asleep in a comfortable bed when my eyes suddenly opened as the office superviser grabbed my arm and lifted me onto my feet. But my anger and annoyance dissipated as he softly explained, "Zaki said to put anything in the office that's breakable or liable to be damaged in a safe place."

Surprised, I asked, "Why? Where's Zaki?

"A lot of people from Hithadhoo are on their way to Gan. It's a rebellion!" he explained quickly. "Zaki has already gone to the RAF station in Hithadhoo with Major Philips."

'I dressed immediately and went downstairs. All the documents and expensive items were taken into the storeroom, and we took what precautions we could. The rest of the staff were shocked and worried. No one knew what exactly was happening. We couldn't really understand.... A little later we went down to the beach and saw the Hithadhoo fleet approaching...

'It was probably around 4.30 a.m. when the dhoanis headed into Gan harbour. The shouting was getting louder. I was standing near the wall of the mosque in front of the liaison office. Soon the mob were jumping from their boats any way they could and running up onto the beach towards the office. It had been built on Gan by the British during World War 2, and was still in good repair, having been renovated to accommodate our needs. Named Maaran'ga, it was a two storey building, the ground floor serving as an office (fully equipped to government standards), with an adjacent dining room and storage areas. Upstairs were the living quarters for senior staff.

The rebels obviously had a plan, because they acted without hesitating. They went straight into the office and began destroying any expensive equipment they could find. They grabbed chairs and others things, brandishing them in the air then smashing them into pieces on the floor. They pushed over the filing cabinets and broke open the drawers. They did whatever they could to the tables. As for important equipment like typewriters...Oh, my! In the midst of this chaos a British military police jeep arrived and trained its headlights straight onto the office. Somebody shouted out, "OK?" The police seemed to be encouraging the rebels.

Now the sun is up. Light and brightness come to the earth, and people's faces become clear... someone ran up to me, grabbed my hand and led me to a dhoani in the harbour. Once aboard they told me not to argue, just to sit quietly with the others there. Half an hour later I saw two British policemen remove their shoes and move towards our boat. They were saying they intended to remove me from the dhoani. As they got nearer the crewmen moved the boat into deeper water. Eventually the policemen apologised and waded back to shore!

It was very noisy on the island, and I had no idea what had happened to my friends. I heard amazing abuse directed at Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir, and Ahmed Zaki. The immediate aim of the rebels had been to capture Ahmed Zaki. So it wasn't long before they discovered he had left Maaran'ga for the RAF station, and gone from there to a large warship in the lagoon...

The rebels hopped back onto their dhoanis and headed towards the warship. They wanted Zaki! The British must have realised something like this would happen because suddenly a naval speed-launch began circling around the ship at high speed. When the sail-powered dhoanis hit the waves created by the launch they had to tack and change direction. This gave the warship's crew time to prepare their high-pressure water hoses.

Thwarted, the dhoanis sailed off towards the atoll office at Maradhoo. Mohamed Zahir, the atoll chief, had been cleverly hidden by the British, so the frustrated crowd burnt down the whole office, and damaged the atoll chief's residence, destroying any official documents they found. They even destroyed the personal belongings of the staff.

Now my dhoani sailed back to Hithadhoo. No one talked much. Most of the people on board were familiar to me, but the others who I didn't know made abusive remarks. We arrived just after ten in the morning... They said I wasn't a criminal, and had actually been brought to Hithadhoo by mistake. Around 5.30 p.m., a Hithadhoo mudhim informed me that I was free to go. He mentioned there was probably no point in returning to Gan because the office was destroyed, but if I wished, I could return tomorrow.

Released at last, I praised Allah for my good fortune and walked off with a family friend to his house. As we were leaving somebody arrived with a message from Abdullah Afif Didi inviting me to stay at his house. I expressed my regrets at being unable to accept his kind invitation...In these events I had lost everything except the clothes I was wearing.'

The British reaction

British Officers at Hithadhoo 1959
Photo: The Times
The tired and intoxicated British forces at the base were obviously sympathetic to aims of the mob; Gan Commander Kent's record for 1 January 1959 begins with the droll phrase: 'The New Year was still being celebrated when at 0400 hours...'

Eyewitnesses recall that the soldiers they met near Maaran'ga 'did nothing to stop them from wrecking the office, even though they were carrying truncheons.

'We found the list of illegal traders, and wanted to burn it. A British soldier noticed a box of matc
hes on the floor, and using his foot, pushed the box towards us. The fire destroyed everything including some money, which we were not happy about. The locked office safe [containing Rf. 700,000 of Maldivian government money, including unpaid wages] was taken to a dhoani and brought to Hithadhoo.'

Abdullah Afif Didi, Phillips, and the RAF acted swiftly and effectively to protect the life of Ahmed Zaki. Both he and Abdullah Afif Didi were taken from the RAF station at Hithadhoo to the SS Matheran in the lagoon, where the British believe their circling high speed launch kept the rebels' dhoanis at bay. eyewitnesses remembers a little differently:

'It was becoming light as our dhoanis approached the ship. We couldn't climb onto it because the boarding ladders had been hauled up. There wasn't even a strand of wire we could use. Afif Didi came out [onto the deck of the SS Matheran] and told us to go back.

'We demanded to see Zaki. Afif Didi told us that Zaki was too scared to speak to us. I shouted that if he was too scared to speak to the people then we were too scared to have such a man as our leader. The shouting continued for a while, then the dhoanis headed for Maradhoo where we burnt and utterly demolished the atoll office. Only ash and rubble remained.'

Despite the incompetent state of the British, they largely succeeded in their efforts that morning to prevent bodily injury during the violence. The only real casualty was a Maldivian visitor at the Liaison office, Anwar Hilmy, who was unknown to the mob and mistakenly identified as Ahmed Zaki. Hilmy fled towards the Pakistani labourers' camp on the western side of Gan, but was caught on the runway.

'We thought he was Zaki, even though he was crying and saying he was there to do medical research. British soldiers intervened, and he was injured as the two groups pulled him in opposite directions. The British soldiers took him a way and sent him to Negombo hospital in Sri Lanka.'

On 3 January, Gan base received a delegation of six spokesmen from Addu who announced 'they had declared their independence from Malé and wished to come under British protection, and the British flag. They explained that their discontent was a long-standing feeling because of the tax system and the monopolistic trading regulations. The latest taxes and the order to stop work had merely ignited the people's anger. In the coming days the Commander-in-Chief of the Far Eastern Air Force and his entourage arrived at Gan for consultations.

The role of Afif Didi
Unlike the headmen of other islands who took no part in the events of that morning, Abdullah Afif Didi had acted directly to protect Ahmed Zaki and warn Gan about the Hithadhoo mob. Zaki was grateful and Afif Didi, who had been threatened by the mob, was to accompany the Maldivian Representative to Malé the next day on a secret RAF evacuation flight. Afif Didi returned to Hithadhoo to prepare for the trip and reassure his family.

He found himself in the thick of the frantic intrigues to find an English-speaking leader who could establish a separate government. The British Political advisor at Gan, Major Phillips was already talking to the Hithadhoo men and seemed willing to co-operate with a suitable leader.

Gan base 1959
Photo: The Times
'We suggested one of the Pakistani camp supervisors could represent us,' says an eyewitness. 'The British said this was unacceptable and they must have a local negotiator. At this stage we had decided to finish with the Malé government and establish our own. A leader was desperately needed and there were only two possibilities - a man in Colombo, Ahmed Didi, who would have to be flown back, and the other was Afif Didi. The British said the man in Colombo was too far away, and that meant Afif Didi was the one.'

Men and women blockaded the road from the RAF station and refused to allow the British to collect Afif Didi, and Ahmed Zaki flew out without him next morning.

Initially Afif Didi refused to become leader, arguing that the idea of succession was doomed to failure and he had no wish to repeat his tortures of the 1940s. His protests fell on deaf ears, and the desperate men of Hithadhoo threatened to demolish his house and kill his family. Afif Didi was under virtual house arrest and the threats were to be taken seriously. There was no choice; he decided to accept the fate that Allah seemed to have ordained for him.

Gan handover ceremony 29 March 1976: Flanked by the British Ambassador to the Maldives, Vice President Koli Ali Maniku receives the handover of Gan from Group Captain W. Edwards of tne Royal Air Force. For the next two years, March 29 was marked as the Maldives Independence day until reverted back to July 26. Just above the Group Captain's forearm is Mr Kakaagey Ali Didi who was appointed as official in charge of Gan. He was later to become my father-in-law
Afif Didi demanded and obtained a secret letter of protection from the British government. Then he promised to lead the new government, provided the people of Addu gave him their loyalty and support. He repeated his personal belief that the separatist movement was doomed to failure and would have to eventually submit to the Malé government. Nevertheless, Afif Didi vowed to lead the rebel movement to the best of his ability, and promised that he would be the last to desert the new republic.

Eyewitnesses say that under these circumstances it is most unfair and untrue to blame Afif Didi for what happened. 'The whole time Afif Didi had bee
n advising and begging people not to go against the Malé government.'