On the night of December 31, 1958, in southern Addu Atoll’s Feydhoo Island, a protest was going on against the central Malé government. Hundreds were protesting against the government’s refusal to pay salaries to those employed by the British. The Maldives was a British protectorate at the time.
Ahmed Jaleel, who was just 15, told me how events transpired.
“You see, the British paid our salaries in Pounds to the Maldivian government. In return, the government paid us in Rufiyaa. But in October 1958, they abruptly stopped doing so. After nearly two months without salaries we protested,” he said.
Jaleel, a tall, slender man with a full white head and beard, is now 72. At 15, he had a job on the military base on Gan Island.
“Two days after the protest, the British intervened and a full blown secession movement was in place,” he said.
The United Suvadive Republic was declared.
The rebellion spurred the Maldivian authorities to seek independence from the British. Talks started in 1963, and on July 26, 1965, Maldives was declared an independent and sovereign state. On the eve of the Golden Jubilee of independence, I had travelled to Addu to speak with elders who had witnessed the rebellion and to find out what had happened to Addu since then.
In addition to Jaleel, I met the widow of the leader of the rebellion, and several businessmen who had traded during the time. They told me of how the British took advantage of rifts between the people of Addu and the central government, the wealth Addu enjoyed under the British, and how the rebellion panned out.
In the 1960s, the people of Addu were wealthier than the central government. In Maradhoo alone, there were five boats, which traded regularly with Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). In contrast, the central government only owned two.
Ibrahim Nasir, the Prime Minister of Maldives, needed money to run the government and to fund his vision for development. He taxed the Addu boats trading between Ceylon and Cochin. He also demanded more money as rent from the British for the military base in Gan. His predecessor had rented the island out for 100 years, for just 2000 Pounds a month.
At the time, Jaleel said, the people of Addu were already paying taxes in the form of a share of goods, or Varuvaa (a tax collected on goods collected from uninhabited islands). Nasir’s decision to levy a 25 percent tax on international trade, the Varuvaa, the withholding of salaries and his opposition to an airport on Gan, was too much, he said.
Abdulla Afeef Didi, a trusted translator to the British, was the leader of the rebellion.
“Afeef never really wanted the burden of leading the people. The British pressured him into accepting the presidency. By the time, people had come to love him as the British had come to trust him,” explained 79-year-old Aneesa Ali Didi, Afeef’s widow.
Afeef was first set to marry Aneesa’s sister, but he was sentenced to seven years banishment for allegedly using black magic to “disappear” a Malé prince’s boat at sea. By the time Afeef was freed, the bride-to-be had already married and conceived children.
“Afeef wanted to marry someone from my family and I was the only other sister,” Aneesa said. They had met and married in 1953. She was 17 and he was 37.
“I just love how religious he was. Wherever he was, he would submit to prayers and he commanded me to do the same. He always wanted to help people even if he could not.”
With the help of the British, Afeef instituted a bank, a modern taxation system and free healthcare at the Regional Medical Hospital in Gan. The breakaway republic had a population of 15,000 people.
“The people of Addu were rich before too. But with the establishment of the bank, we got a real opportunity to exploit our wealth and gain significant developments,” Jaleel, said.
By this time, the British were also educating their employees. Jaleel studied bookkeeping. Biology and chartered accounting were taught as well. Middle class businesses were booming. There were restaurants, cinemas and bakeries in Addu.
“The business was good. People were earning enough money that they could spend on small luxuries,” said Moosa Lutfee, 79, who managed Afeef’s business, the ATC Company.
“Most of us had jobs. There were around 2500 men in Gan always, including the British military officers and Pakistanis who came to work under them. Nevertheless, they needed men to work for them. Plus there were many jobs in Addu as well because of all the small businesses,” 80-year-old Ahammaidi said.
The main source of income remained exports. Under the Suvadive Republic, the people of Addu exported fish, coir rope, and cowrie shells, straight to Ceylon and Cochin in India.
By 1963, the English had searched the Maldives for minerals and oil, but could not find any. The central government was working very hard to retake Addu. Nasir had begun talks with the British and were lobbying at the U.N through Sri Lanka, an independent country by then.
“So the British did not really want to be in the middle of this any longer. And they had nothing to exploit in our land. Plus there was international pressure and pressure from the Maldives government as well,” Jaleel said.
The independence negotiations that brought an end to the Suvadive Republic took some time. The English wanted the people of Addu to go unpunished for their rebellion because so many were employed on Gan.
“Finally, the English gathered us around and told us that, whether we liked it or not, the Maldivian flag will be hoisted in Addu atoll,” he continued.
On September 21, 1963, for the first time in four years, a Maldivian flag was hoisted in Maradhoo Island, bringing an end to the Suvadive Republic. Afeef Didi and his family were immediately taken to Seychelles. A great number of people went to bid farewell to the leader of their short-lived republic.
“I was devastated by the news. I cried and cried and opposed the idea but I knew if we stayed there would be trouble. That’s why my sons, all under 10 years, Ibrahim Afeef, Mohamed Afeef , Hussain Afeef, Afeef and I boarded the British warship HMS Loch Lomond on that day,” Aneesa said.
Nearly two years later, Nasir signed the declaration of independence. Gan remained with the British for another 30 years. However, they suddenly packed up and left in 1976.
“The British had suffered huge losses during the Second World War. So Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, changed his policies and decided to leave Aden Island in the Middle East, later Gan in the Indian Ocean and Masirah Island in the Gulf,” Jaleel, who had kept a record of such events, said.
With independence, Addu suffered great losses, too. In 1976, Nasir, who had now become president after abolishing the sultanate, took to Malé all the furniture, machines, health equipment and other useful items that the British left behind. The people of Addu, now jobless, were paid to pack up the goods at the hospital and the military base.
“After that, government policies towards Addu have rarely been beneficial to us,” Jaleel said.
Today, Addu has a population of just 20,000 people. People live without clean water and waste management. Nearly half of the population is unemployed. “We wish the British had never left,” some people now say.
Meanwhile, Afeef’s family settled in Seychelles. What was supposed to be a temporary stay turned into decades.
“My uncle said it would only be six months. But it was 26 years later that we got the chance to come back to Maldives again,” Aneesa said. “Afeef was not happy with the British because he had to leave Addu. He didn’t even take the passport the English offered.”
In Seychelles, Afeef and his wife Aneesa started teaching Islam in the Muslim community. Afeef later held a second job as a translator in the Libyan embassy. His requests to come back to the Maldives after President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom assumed power were not fruitful. After he suffered a stroke, Gayoom allowed Afeef to visit Addu in August 1989.
He died in Seychelles in July 1993. But his memory lives on in the streets and shady corners of Addu, an ocean away. After decades of indifference and neglect, the longing for self-rule lingers, too.