The Maldives gained independence from the British on July 26, 1965, after 77 years as a British protectorate. The Maldives hosted a British air base on the island of Gan in Addu atoll between 1957 and 1967. The following is a timeline of important events in the story of independence with commentary from historian Mohamed Shathir.
For Shathir, two key events in the early 1960s heralded the Maldives’ independence from the British on July 26, 1965: the expulsion of the Borah traders from Malé and the suppression of a revolt in the southern atolls.
Reclaiming control over the economy after 105 years and reunifying the country showed the Maldives had “the courage to secure full independence,” Shathir told the Maldives Independent.
“National spirit and unity was very strong then. It’s notable that everyone was united and came together,” he observed. “So that makes it easier for rulers. If there were big divisions over it in the country, it couldn’t have been done.”
Antiquity to mid-1880s – Historical records show that the Maldives was first settled about 2,500 years ago.
The territory of the Maldives stretched from Minicoy in the north to Addu atoll in the south during the reign of King Sri Mahabarana (1120 AD to 1142 AD). The King reclaimed Minicoy and Bodu Thiladhunmathi atoll from the Chola Empire.
The Maldives converted to Islam in 1153 AD during the reign of King Sri Tribuvana Aditiya, who adopted the name Mohamed Ibn Abdulla and sent missionaries across the country to spread Islam.
In its millennia-long history, the Maldives only lost its independence and sovereignty twice. The Maldives was under Portuguese colonial rule from May 19, 1558 to July 2, 1573. The Malabars from South India conquered and ruled the Maldives from December 20, 1752 to April 7, 1753.
The Maldives has a proud history of independence. There are only a few countries in the world with such a long history of independent self-rule, Shathir said.
December 16, 1887 – Maldives becomes British protectorate.
By the mid-1880s, India and Ceylon were under British imperial rule. The Maldivian government paid a ceremonial annual tribute first to the Dutch and then the British based in Ceylon.
The Borah traders from the neighbouring countries had taken over the Maldivian economy during the reign of King Imadudheen IV (Muskulhi Bandaarain) with the backing of the British.
The political rivalry between two royal families led by Athireege Ibrahim Didi and Kakaage Mohamed Rannabadeyri Kilegefaanu allowed the British to intervene in domestic affairs.
In late 1886, Ibrahim Didi or Dhoshimeyna Kilegefaanu deposed the Sultan, who was replaced with Mohamed Mueenudeen III, known as Kuda Bandarain.
The Maldives became a British protectorate with the cooperation of the Athireege family, which had ties to the British.
The formal acceptance of protectorate status followed the state’s bankruptcy and politically motivated arson campaigns in Malé.
The Maldives had already lost economic independence to the Borah traders and lost its independence on foreign affairs when it became a British protectorate.
December 22, 1932 – First written constitution adopted.
The British were involved in drafting the constitution and the Governor in Ceylon had arrived in the Maldives prior to its adoption.
1941 – Britain establishes military base on Addu atoll Gan during the second World War. The British were also stationed in Dhoonidhoo near Malé and in Haa Alif Kelaa.
April 24, 1948 – Maldives signs agreement with Britain for independence in domestic or internal affairs.
Since the Maldives became a protectorate, the British were involved in domestic affairs and had to be consulted on matters of succession to the throne. The British had also compiled a report on the deposing of King Shamshudheen in 1903.
In the late 1950s, during Prime Minister Nasir’s rule, Maldivians were granted more individual liberty and freedom than before, including the right for the common people to wear sandals and use umbrellas and for women to visit local and foreign-owned shops. The prevailing culture of class or caste system was slowly eroding.
Nasir also introduced wages for government employees in the atolls. On January 1, 1959, Nasir discontinued the practice of paying atoll and island chiefs with a portion of the fish catch.
The Gregorian calendar was adopted on January 1, 1958 and the Olympus theatre was opened on May 21, 1959.
March 1959 – Three southern atolls – Addu, Fuvahmulah, and Huvadhoo – secede from the Maldives and declare the United Suvadive Republic.
The southern rebellion took place amidst a dispute over a British military base on the island of Gan in Addu atoll.
In July, Nasir led an armed expedition to Huvadhoo atoll and makes mass arrests on the island of Thinadhoo. The Malé government began negotiations with the British over the Gan military base.
Nasir’s predecessor thought it was in the best interest of the Maldives as a small island nation to remain under the protection of a world power. He had leased Gan to the British for 100 years in 1957, but the agreement was not approved by the Maldivian parliament.
Nasir, who was 30 years old when he became prime minister, believed the time was ripe for the Maldives to become an independent nation.
January 1960 – The Suvadive Republic is formally established with Afeef Didi as its head.
February 1960 – The Malé government signs an agreement with the British to lease Gan island and the Maamendhoo area of Hithadhoo for 30 years.
The British government recognizes the Sultan as the Maldivian head of state and reaffirms the ‘UK government’s desire and concern to promote an early reconciliation between the inhabitants of Addu atoll and the government of His Highness the Sultan.’
The Suvadive Republic agrees to accept the sultan of Maldives as their head of state in Addu.
British representative Humphrey Arthington-Davy arrives in Malé and is based on nearby Dhoonidhoo Island
February 3, 1962 – Nasir leads a second attack against Thinadhoo and depopulates the island. A violent demonstration occurs in Gan, rejecting British attempts to restore the southernmost atoll to rule by the capital.
Shathir believes that Nasir’s actions in quelling the secessionist movement must be judged in the context of his time and Maldivian traditions.
“We have to view it as a militaristic exercise to reclaim a part of the Maldives that had broken away,” he suggested.
People sometimes refer to the depopulation of Thinadhoo, without sparing women and children, as cruel and excessive, but Shathir said he believes it should be weighed in consideration of the circumstances of the time.
August 1, 1962 – After 105 years, the Borah traders are banned from doing business and are forced to leave the Maldives.
The Borah traders had links to prominent members of Maldivian society and were based in the country. Young members of the cabinet and parliament at the time pushed for the move. But it did not prove easy under Prime Minister Ibrahim Faamdheyri Kilegefaanu. Efforts to force out the Borah traders began when Ibrahim Nasir became Prime Minister on December 12, 1957.
The British did not attempt to stop the eviction.
September 1963 – The British agree to return Addu to Malé control by the end of the year. Afeef and his supporters agree to end the revolt. Afeef and his family are taken to Seychelles by the British.
Nasir demands independence as a further price of the Addu facilities. The Maldives joins the Colombo Plan.
July 26, 1965 – Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir signs independence agreement with the British. The population of the Maldives at the time was 97,743.
After the end of the World War, both India and Sri Lanka secured independence from the British.
The main event that led to the Maldives seeking independence was the secession of three southern atolls and the short-lived Suvadive Republic from 1959 to 1963.
The agreement was reached following discussions between the Maldives representative in Sri Lanka, Abdul Sattar Moosa Didi, and Humphrey Arthington-Davy, the British representative.
The public also staged protests against the British before the agreement was signed.
Less than two months after securing independence, Nasir secured membership in the United Nations on September 21, 1965. The Maldivian flag was raised at the UN headquarters on October 12, 1965.
The first Maldivian permanent representative to the UN was Ahmed Hilmy Didi, a minister at the time, who had served as representative to Ceylon under President Mohamed Ameen.