The Máldive Islands- by C. W. Rosset


28 December 2006

This article originally appeared in The Graphic of 16 October 1886

The preparations for my visit to these islands were commenced in the spring of 1884 will as it had been my intentions to proceed here in October of that year; but the combination of accidents prevented my departure from Colombo at the appointed time, and I had therefore 12 months for another opportunity. This delay was unavoidable owing to the fact that dividend total dividend could have done highly seen which prevails around the islands during the southwest monsoon makes a landing gear a rather dangerous matter, especially if one is cumbered wooden boxes of instruments and stories. It was necessary for me to arrive in after the setting the end of the North East monsoon about the middle of October, so as to have as long a spell of fine weather as possible.

Máldive trading boats lying in the harbour of Málé

Seeing that the Máldives were a dependency of the Government of Ceylon before that colony passed into the hands of the English in 1796, it cannot but be a matter of some surprise that the information possessed concerning them should be of such meagre description. The Máldivians have long been known as a peaceful and hospitable race, though shy and suspicious with strangers until they have satisfied themselves of the latter’s friendly intentions: they are not too conservative to oppose the adoption of new ideas if these are properly introduced: nor are they deficient in commercial aptitude. One cause of the islands having been so much neglected is undoubtedly to be found in the bad reputation acquired by the climate: and another is probably a certain reluctance on the part of the Ceylon Government to meddle, or appear to meddle, with the affairs of the Máldivians.

I am not by any means the first European who has paid a visit to the Máldives; but I can justly claim to be the first who has undertaken a systematic exploration of the groups, and who for that purpose has taken up abode his abode among and associated with the people. By the courtesy of the English Government I had been given a passage in the steamer Ceylon, the vessel in which Captain Wilding makes his periodical visits to the lighthouses of Minicoy and the Basses. It was arranged that, as she was to proceed to Bombay to have some repairs effected, I should be left on the way at Malé, and that she should return and fetch me away in two months’ time.

At length, on the morning of the 25th October, 1885, the Ceylon steamed out of Colombo harbour and shaped her course for Malé, the capital of the Máldive group, situated on the island of the same name, at the southern end of North Malé Atol, exactly in the centre of the group. We sighted land about 9 AM on the morning of the 29th, being then between four and five miles distant; but there were no landmarks to indicate which of the twelve thousand islands which constitute the Máldive group was then before us. Soon a number of fishing boats could be seen approaching and the engines were stopped to enable us to get a pilot on board, from whom we learned that we had shaped our course correctly, and had arrived directly opposite to the island of Malé. The panorama, which was now spread out before us, was beautiful in the extreme. The low shore, marked by the thin white line of the beach, was covered to the height of about seven feet with a thick growth of jungle, above which waved the graceful heads of thousands of cocoa-nut trees, to which the slight breeze then blowing imparted a scarcely perceptible motion. As I leant over the bulwarks, admiring the scene, I suddenly became aware of a painfully pestilential odour, which at once dissipated the romantic thoughts, which the beauty of the scene had conjured up. This was the much-dreaded fever-laden breath of the lagoons, the cause of the deadly Máldive fever. This stench is due to a peculiarity in the Atols, or clusters of islands and reefs which constitute the Máldive group. Most of the islands are small, varying from a hundred yards to a mile in length and breadth, and are seldom more than six feet above the level of the sea. In many cases the islands form part of a ring of coral rock without any opening, the consequence being that when the sea is calm, the enclosed water becomes rapidly putrid under the action of sun’s rays, and emits the odours to which I have referred. Indeed, many of the islands are quite uninhabitable, owing to the coral ring having grown to a height sufficient to exclude any but the highest waves; others, again, are only unhealthy during the hot season, the outside sea being able to beat over the barrier during the time that the south-west monsoon is blowing, and thus to constantly renew the water within. I discovered afterwards that the lagoons which emitted the odours did not affect the town, or island of Malé.

Rosset mistook this as the flag of the Ottoman Empire

When we had arrived within five hundred yards of the shore the Turkish flag, which floated from the flagstaff in the northern corner of the old Portuguese fort, was lowered in salute, the Ceylon returning the compliment by dipping her ensign three times. The anchor was dropped shortly afterwards, at about two hundred and fifty yards from the beach, as foreign vessels are not allowed to enter the harbour of Malé without having first obtained the Sultan’s permission.

The sight of the steamer had by this time attracted crowds to the beach, and it seemed as if the entire population of male had turned out. About half-an-hour after the anchor had been dropped a large canoe could be seen issuing from the harbour; it was propelled by forty rowers, and was soon alongside. It conveyed the messengers from the Sultan, who were sent to inquire what business had brought us there, and I at once handed them the letters of introduction with which I had been furnished in Ceylon before my departure, at the same time expressing my wish to be conducted as soon as possible to the Prime Minister, E. A. Abraham Deedee, to whom I had been specially recommended. One of the messengers, named Ibrahim Deedee (who, I was glad to discover, was able to speak a little English), told me that if I returned with them to the shore my request could be immediately complied with, and I accordingly entered the canoe with them.

The passage through the surf in these boats is at times a matter of danger. They are built of a length quite out of proportion to their breadth, which makes them very unseaworthy, and to add to the discomforts of the passenger he is obliged to stand up in the stern, as no seats are provided for his accommodation, so that unless he keeps a very sharp look-out he runs considerable risk of being shot overboard when the stern is lifted by a wave, in which case no power on earth could save him unless he happened to be a very expert swimmer. The boatmen themselves, being as much at home in the water as on land, are naturally indifferent to the danger; in fact, they are well used to being ducked.

As I stepped ashore the Vizier came forward, and , taking me by the hand, led me away at once through the principal streets of the town. Close behind us walked my two Cingalese servants, dressed in a gala costume of red satin, whilst a crowd of inquisitive Máldivians brought up the rear, forming a procession of quite respectable length. We soon arrived before the entrance of a large compound surrounded by a high wall, in the centre of which stood a small building, which I afterwards discovered to be the Kacheri (Town Hall), which I was invited to enter. The entrance, destitute of any door, was very low, and it was necessary to stoop nearly double in order to penetrate to the interior, which was so dark as to make it impossible to distinguish anything for several minutes after leaving the fierce glare without. A seat was offered me, and accepted, and four individuals, whose dress bespoke them as persons of rank, took their places, two on either hand. Not a word had yet been spoken since I landed, and the silence continued unbroken for several minutes after we were seated. I tried to make out what my companions were like, but the semi-obscurity of the apartment rendered their features very indistinct; so far as I could make out they appeared to have regular features, and that tranquil expression usually found in Orientals. No two of them seemed to be of the same colour; one was quite fair, the second darker, while the third and fourth had complexions which approached a mahogany tint.

The silence at length began to get irksome, and I therefore inquired of the messenger whether I should soon be able to speak with the Prime Minister. He replied that his Excellency was then seated on my right. I at once addressed myself to him, and, after naming different gentlemen in Ceylon who had sent complimentary messages to him, made my request for an audience of the Sultan, adding a few words touching the object of my visit. He inquired whether I had any letters for his Majesty the "Sultan and King", to which I replied in the negative. I had been advised in Ceylon not to take letters for the Sultan, who can neither read nor write, and with whom it is advisable to have as little direct intercourse as possible, he being very averse to Europeans. In requesting the interview with the Sultan, I further asked for permission to make a lengthened stay in the islands, and to be allowed to build houses, collect specimens, and travel from one island to the other through the group. The Minister departed to carry my requests to the Sultan, and returned in about half an hour. He informed me that the Sultan would be unable to reply to my request for an audience for eight or ten days; that he could not give me any answer touching my wish to travel about the group; but that instructions had meantime been given for houses to be placed at my disposal, and for any provisions I might require to be supplied. This was exactly the answer I had expected, and I was about to express my thanks and withdraw, when Abraham Deedee informed me that if I desired it I could have the use of a house and compound belonging to him, which, being on the shore of the harbour, would be much more convenient than one in the centre of the town.

I gladly accepted this kind offer, and after thanking him took my leave, as I wanted to return on board and get my boxes (of which I had forty-five) ashore before night. The natives gave every assistance, and the work was accomplished in good time, and I was able to return on board before sundown, leaving my two servants to arrange the house which had been set apart for my use. The next morning I bade "good-bye" to my friends captain Wilding and the officers of the Ceylon, and went ashore in the native boat which had been sent off for me. A stiff breeze had sprung up during the night, and the high sea then running made the short passage to the beach very trying, whilst the rain which was pouring down added to the discomfort; so that I was very glad when the beach was at length gained in safety, in time for a last look at the Ceylon, which was steaming off in the direction of Minicoy.

House and compound of E.A. Abraham Deedee, Prime Minister

Malé is situated at the South eastern corner of North Malé atol, and is the seat of Government of the group. It is about a mile in length by three quarters in breadth, and, like most of the other islands, is in no place more than from six to seven feet above the sea level. The harbour has been formed from a part of the lagoon enclosed by a barrier reef which nearly surrounds the island, and on which a kind of the sea wall about four feet high has been built with rough blocks of coral. The harbour thus formed affords very efficient protection to the Máldivian trading boats and fishing boats: but the entrance is too narrow for vessels of more than 200 tons to enter.

The town of Malé struck me as being more regularly laid out and cleaner than is generally the case in Eastern countries. The streets are straight, broad, and shaded with trees, and are kept very clean. The houses are mostly built of plaited coconut leaves plastered over with a stiff mud, and roofed with coconut leaves thatch; they are usually divided into two apartments, communicating by a doorway closed by a curtain. The front apartment is the general and sleeping room in, and is furnished with benches round the wall and a few stools beside the bed, which is always the most conspicuous article of furniture in a Máldive house. This bed in is suspended from the roof by chains or rope, the material of which depends upon the caste to which the proprietor belongs; high castes using brass chains, middle casts iron chains, and low casts coiled ropes. The legs are also provided in order that the bed may be lowered down in case of illness, when the swinging motion to which it is liable would be a social danger or annoyance to the patient. The furniture of the bed is a matter of great importance; high castes use a mattress and pillows of red silk; middle castes are content with cotton stuff; while low casts sleep on straw. The mattress on straw is covered with a mat, the pattern and quality of which are regulated by the caste of the owner. The Máldivians display great skill and taste in the manufacture of these mats, which have acquired reputation for harmonious design and permanency of colour. They are made only in Suvadiva Atol from a grass called by the Máldivians hau; only three colours are used - black, dark yellow, and white, which are obtained from plants and are wonderfully lasting. Although the Máldivians keep their houses scrupulously clean, they are very unhealthy on account of being surrounded by a wall from six to seven feet in height, which impede the free passage of fresh air, this being the all the more hurtful as the openings in the purpose of doors and windows are not very large. The bad effects of this arrangement are apparent in cases of illness, when the patient as often as not dies as much from want of fresh air as any other cause. The inner compartment of the houses is reserved for the women, who remain there when not engaged in household or other duties, or when male visitors are in the house. They are not, however, secluded with the same strictness as is observed in other Muslim countries; on several occasions when I was visiting at some of the lower caste houses the women of the household would join in the conversation, though always remaining invisible in their apartment.

The remains of the fort erected by the Portuguese during one of the temporary occupations of the islands probably in the 16th century would seem to indicate that they looked upon the Máldive Islands as a position of considerable importance. In my view of Malé harbour it will be seen that the main bastion is a structure of great strength; the walls of solid masonry are upwards of 20 feet in height and in a good state of preservation, though much overgrown with weeds and grass. Many of the old cannon are lying about within the fort; but are, of course, quite useless, being rusty, and choked with coral. A mast from a ship wrecked some 200 years back is raised in a corner of the bastion and serves as a flag-staff. Scattered about the town are upwards of 200 old cannon, all as unserviceable as those in the fort.

The Sultan’s palace is situated to the north east of the main bastion, in the centre of a large walled enclosure; before the gateway are placed about half a dozen old cannon, the only ones capable of being used, with which salutes are fired on great occasions. The palace itself is a large building with an upper floor. Visitors are received in the verandah which I was able to photograph. François Pyrard de Laval, a French adventurer who visited these islands during his travels in the east early in the 17th century, and was detained here for five years from 1602 to 1607, gives a longer and minute account of the palace, according to which it contained many fine halls tastefully decorated; but during my stay I was unable to penetrate within, and cannot therefore either confirm or amend his description. Within the palace enclosure are several buildings used as stores, and an arena in which the dances and sports take place, on one side of which is a kind of raised covered platform for the accommodation of the ladies of the court and some of the hired functionaries.

There are several mosques in Malé, two of them larger than the others; but they offered no peculiarity either of structure or ornament which would entitle them to special notice.

Malé being the centre of the government and trade of the whole group, is naturally the most thickly populated, and as the Máldivians not only invariably bury people where they die, but are also very careful not to inter two in the same place, some idea can be formed of the number of graves to be seen there. This has been advanced as a reason for the unhealthiness of Malé, and I think that the water drawn from the wells must inevitably be contaminated.

The ordinary dress of the men is very simple, consisting of drawers, a cloth bound round the loins, after the mode of the Cingalese, and a handkerchief twisted round the head. On special days, such as Fridays, when they attend the mosque, the high caste wear a shirt and jacket, over which is a kind of long dressing down, coming down and nearly to the feet. The turban is only worn by priests and the Sultan.

The women's costume is exceedingly becoming. Round the waist, and reaching down to the ankles, is worn a cloth (mostly of native manufacture), coarse in texture, of a dark chocolate colour, with a border of parallel black and white stripes. Over this they wear a kind of loose shirt, or gown, of silk, with short sleeves, reaching nearly to the knees, which is not made to fit to the neck and shoulders, but is gathered in round them; the openings for the neck and arms are ornamented with embroidery in gold, silver, and silk thread. The hair, which is black, and generally long and thick, is tied up behind, and a handkerchief of the same colour as the shirt is bound round it. All ranks wear similar costume, the distinctions of caste being marked by the difference in the quality of the silk stuff of which the shirt is made, and of the embroidery.

The Máldivians are very quiet and reserved in their intercourse with foreigners until their confidence has been gained, when they show themselves hospitable to a degree. They have few wants and in, and as they possess the means of easily satisfying them, are inclined to be indolent; sober, honest, and cheerful, they compare favourably with the inhabitants of many other Eastern countries. They are very ingenious and expert in their manufactures, and display great aptitude in the imitation of any European articles they may come across, such as knife handles, scales, and other small articles of daily use amongst us.

Editor's note
The King Ibrahim Nooreddine Iskander, unlike the rest of his family and extended family, was reputed to be extremely dark in complexion. Rosset visited the Maldives in his first reign (1882-86). Until his second reign (1888-92), the Islamic mullahs prevented the Maldive kings from giving audiences to Europeans. They were afraid of the kings being persuaded to accept Christianity, as one did in the 16th century. Visiting Europeans who requested audiences were always made to meet a commoner dressed as the king. Rosset described him as fair in complexion indicating that he had been shown someone else. Ibrahim Nooreddine Iskander was the site editor's great-grandfather's younger brother.

The King was young, educated and very progressive in his ideas. This was all the more reason for the colonialist mullahs to keep their iron grip over him in order to preserve their crippling control that still, even today, keeps the the Maldives in the Dark Ages. His daughter the Princess Don Goma wrote a book over many decades that was not so flattering of the schemes of those who wielded real control in the Maldives. The manuscript of the book, that was never allowed to be published, was seized from Don Goma's grandchildren in the 1980s and destroyed by the government.

The Sultan is a young man of some 23 years of age, strongly built, and with a well-proportioned figure. His complexion is fair, and his regular features are well set off by a jet black beard, worn short, as is the custom among Máldivian high castes. He is of a very full habit of body, and the life he leads is such as to preclude any possibility of his life being a long one. His rule is absolute; and although he has ministers whose advice he seeks on any occasion of importance, he seldom if ever profits by their wisdom, and often takes the course directly opposite to their views. He is very adverse to any intercourse with foreigners, especially Europeans, whom he either refuses to see at all or keeps waiting, perhaps, for weeks before granting an interview. At the time of my visit this cautiousness had been very much increased by the recent arrival of news from Zanzibar, giving details of the doings of the Germans in that part, and he consequently fancied that my visit had some ulterior and political design which he could only frustrate by detaining me in Malé until the Ceylon arrived to take me away again. Fortunately for me, his ministers were not so prejudiced as their master, and gladly gave me all the assistance they dared in face of the restrictions put upon them by the Sultan. It is fortunate for this monarch that he has had to deal with the English for the last century, also that his dominions are a little out of the direct march of civilisation. But the time cannot be far off when his only choice will lie between submission to the Europeans or practical effacement.

Although not so strict as formerly, caste distinctions are rigidly adhered to. The Sultan naturally occupies the highest rank, after him come his near relations, who have the sole right of assuming the title of Mannipul or Manifulloo; the next in rank are the descendants of former Sultans, who have a right to assume the name and rank of Didi, or Deedee. When the Sultan appoints a minister, or wishes to show any particular favour, he bestows a title, which has generally attached to it the ownership of certain islands, which become either the life property of the favoured person, or else are held by him during the Sultan’s pleasure. The present ministers, with their titles and in order of rank, are: Manifulloo, title Fatina Kilage-fanu, Treasurer: he is a near relative of the Sultan, to whom he is next in rank; but he has very little influence over the monarch, hardly more than other high castes.

E.A. Abraham Deedee, Prime Minister of the Máldives

E.A. Abraham Deedee, title Dorimaina Kilage-fanu, Prime Minister: Abraham Deedee is undoubtedly the most enlightened of all the Sultan’s subjects. To him is entrusted the management of the trade of the Máldives, which already shows signs of development in spite of the restrictions with which the Sultan hampers it. He is a great friend of the English and spent some years in Ceylon, acting as Turkish consul in Galle, an office now filled by his son [the Prime Minister's great grandson is currently the Turkish honorary consul in Malé and has been so for many years. -ed.]. It is to him that I owe the success of my first visit. I always found him ready to give me every assistance and information in his power. Hassan Deedee, title Famu Dairi Kilage-fanu: Hassan Deedee is a cousin of E.A. Abraham Deedee, and has the command of the army; his principal duty being to superintend the fencing and dancing games which are held periodically by order of the Sultan. One interesting fact in connection with him is that he is the only Máldivian man who is allowed to wear the old Máldive costume, in which he was dressed when I took his photograph. This costume nearly in resembles that worn by the women of the present day. Next in rank to the ministers are the Viziers, who have charge of the divisions, or boards, into which Malé is divided, of which there are four. There are other titles bestowed by the Sultan which are merely social distinctions, and many of which can be obtained by payment of a few rupees.

The trade of the Máldives must all pass through in Malé and is mostly carried on indolent on the principle of barter. The bazaar in Malé is the only one which exists in the group, and it is here that all the foreign trade is carried on. The shops are the personal property of the Sultan, who lets them out to a number of Bombay merchants, at rents varying from 15 rupees to 50 rupees per month. These Bombay merchants mostly sell rice and cotton goods to the natives, taking in exchange tortoise-shell, coconuts, cowries, and dried fish.

The Máldivians are Mohammedans, and it is generally supposed that their conversion to the faith of the Prophet took place some 700 years back. Although particular in observing the fast and ceremonies of the religion, they are not so particular as to the manner in which this is done. Their mosques are well built in kept very clean; and there are several in Malé, but one is mostly used for ordinary festivals and prayer, and is called the Friday mosque. Superstitions exercise a great influence on the daily life of the Máldivians, much more than religion. They are principally afraid of the Devil, who is supposed to exercise great power, and whom they make responsible for all mishaps which befall them; they go out at night very unwillingly, for fear of meeting him. Should illness visit a house, it is supposed that the inmates have offended his Satanic majesty in some way, and prayers are addressed to him, begging him to cease the supposed punishment; in extreme cases these prayers are written on a piece of cotton stuff stretched on a small wooden frame, which is exposed before the house.

The Máldivians do not marry very early; I believe the usual age for men is between 18 and 20. Polygamy is allowed, according to the Mohammedan law, the number of a wives being limited to 4. The ceremony is extremely simple: the man having satisfied the parents of his intended bride of his ability to support her, the pair attend before the magistrate of their island, and signify their mutual wish to be joined in matrimony. The magistrate thereupon declares them to be man and wife, calling upon those assembled to be witnesses. It will readily be understood that a bond so lightly tied can be as easily severed; should a couple not agree, they attend again before the magistrate, who, after satisfying himself that both parties desire the separation, declares the marriage annulled.

The amusements are very few; indeed the islanders are of too indolent and taciturn a disposition to enter with spirit into any pastime. Fishing is their favourite exercise, and is indulged in to nearly the same degree as hunting and shooting in England. They are fond of kite-flying; but this pastime is only permitted at certain periods of the year.

Girl swinging
This is the chief amusement of the Máldive women

As in all Eastern countries, all household duties are left to the women, who also have to prepare and cook their husbands’ food. They are not allowed to eat with their husbands; but must first wait upon him until his meal has finished, when they retire to their own apartment for their repast. As rule they are decidedly handsome, and many of them have complexions nearly as fair as the women of Southern Europe. They are better treated than in other Mohammedan countries, having a great deal of liberty. They never veil their faces, and the only restriction to which they are subjected is that they are not allowed out at night, which is not any great hardship for them, as the fear of meeting the devil is already a sufficient inducement for them to remain at home.

Crime is very rare on the islands, and the punishment inflicted would generally be considered mild in Europe. Death is never inflicted, the severest penalty being banishment to an uninhabited island for a period commensurate with the offence committed. The commonest punishment is castigation, the blows being dealt on the back and thighs with a sheet of leather inserted into a handle; but I was informed that when the punishment is intended to be very severe iron nails are inserted in the leather, which cruelly lacerate the flesh; this must be of very rare occurrence, however.

I was unable to go further than the island of Malé on this visit, as the Sultan (who suspected I had some ulterior political design in visiting his country) refused to allow me to proceed further. When he ultimately gave his consent it was too late, as the Ceylon was then due to take me back to Colombo, and as I had arranged to exhibit my collection at the Colonial and Indian exhibition, further delay was impossible. I intend, however, to revisit the Máldives before the close of the year, to complete the explorations begun in Malé.

Following political upheaval in Malé, Athireegey Ibrahim Didi Dorhimeyna Kilegefan (whom Rosset calls E.A. Abraham Deedee) was dismissed as Prime Minister. A serious arson campaign including burning down houses and business premises of ordinary citizens ensued. The ex-prime minister was implicated and charged.

Subsequently he was freed following intervention by the British authorities in Colombo.

It was alleged that Ibrahim Didi engaged the services of a witch (fanditha) doctor in order to regain power. The following is an extract from Mysticism in the Maldives by Ali Hussain, Iqbal Khaleel, Abdul Hameed A. Hakeem, Ali Rasheed, and Shahina Ali. Maldives, Malé 1991, published in the web site

Even in the twenty-first century, fanditha black magic is a growth industry in the Maldives. Supplicants use it to determine the outcome of anything from football matches to one-night stands and political fortune. Koranic passages are used in fanditha, with Allah's name usually written back to front in Arabic to read Hallaak (the one who brings destruction). Spirits known as jinn mentioned by Mohamed in the Islamic holy books serve a central role in fanditha.

In 1886 an arson campaign organised in Malé by Athireege Ibrahim Didi, included the use of an Addu fanditha man to render the perpetrators invisible. A fresh corpse was secretly exhumed and the liver removed and boiled down into oil.

"To perform this type of fanditha, the performer should remain unclean after his bodily functions. Further, while performing the fanditha, he should remain naked. In this state he begins to recite incantations and burn incense. This to communicate with the malevolent jinni from whom the fanditha man requests assistance in his hideous task.

...the ex-Prime Minister [Athireege Ibrahim Didi] and his conspirators... were to remain in an unclean state after performance of their bodily functions. They were also instructed not to wear any clothing, or to wear the minimum amount of clothing, this also above the waist. It was essential that they should be naked from the waist down.

...upon hearing [the fanditha man] Kudhu Abu's signal, they were supposed to crawl ashore on all fours, imitating an animal. In this manner they were to approach the mixture of flour and human liver oil.

Kudhu Abu had prepared and apportioned this mixture in advance. Each of the conspirators was to consume his share of this gruesome mixture, and the one unable to consume it completely would betray the rest. Before the night was over the sinful and sacrilegious deed was done..."

Athireegey Ibrahim Didi subsequently regained power more than once and finally kept it after regaining it in 1903. He died in 1925 after suffering a stroke, having endured the insubordination of a young rebel by the name of Bodufenvalhugey Seedi, this site editor's maternal grandfather.