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The southern atolls of Maldives
Michael O'Shea
Suvadive Republic 1959-1963, part 3



The history of the Male' government's attitude towards its southern atolls was one of disdain and neglect. Huvadhu, Fua Mulaku, and Addu had always functioned at the periphery of Male's control.

Until the general introduction of engine-powered dhoanis in the 1980s, contact between the atolls and Male' could be delayed for months by contrary winds or currents. On the other hand, sailing between southern Maldives and Sri Lanka or south India was relatively easy, and rich men on the major islands on Huvadhu and Addu atolls controlled small fleets of trading vessels maintaining regular links with Colombo and Galle in Sri Lanka, and Cochin in Kerala. A Huvadhu man who sailed regularly with these ships in the 1930s said:
'Before World War 2 there was no such thing as the Maldivian economy. Only in Male' was the king's power real. The government used to have a tax on coconut trees; each year three government ships would sail around Huvadhu atoll and collect the nuts and take them to Bengal. They'd return to Male' with smoking tobacco and other goods, but it was all only for the court.'

Linguistic differences between Male' and the south were another factor encouraging antagonism. The types of Dhivehi spoken in the southern atolls are markedly different from Male' dialect, and closer to Sri Lankan Sinhala. Over two hundred years after the invention of Thaana in the late sixteenth century the old Dhives Akuru was still being used for government orders issued to the south.

Government in Male' had long held the view that its rule was a force of civilisation and order in the south. In his folk-tale biography of Mohamed Thakurufan, Hussein Salahuddheen describes an inspection voyage of the southern atolls by the Maldivian conqueror after his capture of Male' in the 1573:
Mohamed Thakurufan gave out orders to the people of these islands not to live together as man and wife unless wedded. He forbade consumption of thaadi, an alcoholic drink made from toddy. He also stopped men and women bathing in the nude together and separated the two beaches where men and women went to relieve themselves.
Mohamed Thakurufan found that there was almost total ignorance... There were not many people who could even distinguish the days of the week and the months of the year. But there were many people who were masters of black magic, sorcery and various other forms of charms... People from Addu and Fua Mulaku said that Andhiri Andhirin's Portuguese-backed rule did not at all touch their lives. Nor were they affected by the unjust reigns of the previous kings.'

Pyrard reflects the superior attitude of Male' Maldivians towards the south when he describes the people there as 'unmannerly, rude, and boorish.' Nearly three centuries later, Vaadhoo in Huvadhu atoll and Meedhoo in Addu have established reputations for Islamic scholarship, and opinions of the southern character far different from Pyrard's are recorded by H.C.P. Bell who writes that other Maldivians find them remarkable 'for their sturdy independence and reliability, their robust physique, peaceful character, and general intellectual equipment (especially marked in religious lore and Arabic scholarship) which has earned merited admiration from the islanders of other atolls.' An important factor colouring relations between Male' and the south was the long tradition of exiling criminals and disgraced politicians there, sometimes for life. These embittered men and women must have promoted feelings of antagonism and resentment among the islanders towards the central government. For the people of Male', the equatorial south was the Maldivian Gulag.

Fanditha
The southern atolls had missed the temporary Christianising influence of the Portuguese colonisation of Male' in the sixteenth century. In fact the southern atolls may have experienced an increase in Middle East shipping with the diversion of Arab trade routes into the central Indian Ocean to avoid the anti-Islamic Portuguese on the Indian and Ceylon coasts. The south was a centre for high quality matting and fabric weaving, Huvadhu atoll producing reed mats of exceptional quality.

Social life was steeped in fanditha, a mixture of folk medicine, charms and black magic, based on ancient beliefs and superstitions, with the addition of Arabic Quranic verses. Islam in the Maldives, though backed by government regulation, has always been restricted by the lack of any Dhivehi translation of the Quran and extremely limited education. Superstition and fanditha thrived in these circumstances.

Magic was often used in political intrigue, courtship and marriage rites, launching new ships, ensuring a good fish catch, finding guilty parties when a crime (usually theft) had been committed, and treating the sick. Fanditha assumed less benign forms when it was employed to weaken or kill enemies. In 1886 an arson campaign organised in Male' by Athireege Ibrahim Didi, included the use of an Addu fanditha man to render the perpetrators invisible. A fresh cadaver was secretly exhumed and the liver removed and boiled down into oil. This oil was added to flour to make a lump of dough over which the fanditha man chanted charms to call up an evil pagan jinni. He then fed small portions of the dough to the arsonists. About fifty years later, a fanditha man Hakeem Didi and his family in Huvadhu atoll killed their atoll chief and planned the murder of the leader Mohamed Ameen, this time using a corpse's liver oil which was to be rubbed directly onto the bodies of the assassins. The plot was discovered and the fanditha man and his co-conspirators were arrested and executed. Before he died Hakeem Didi cursed both his executioner and Ameen. Later, both men met painful deaths.

Addu and the British
Addu first came to British military notice in 1835 when Commander Moresby of the Indian Navy was ordered to survey the Maldives in an attempt to reduce the incidence of shipwreck on the atolls. Moresby realised the potential of Addu as a harbour and coaling station for British steam ships, and mapped the lagoon thoroughly. Moresby's record of Adduans peaceful and industrious lives is supported in the account given by the captain of the SS Consett, wrecked on Huvadhu atoll in 1880. He describes the people as 'very obliging, kind, and friendly, 'not ignorant, having books in their own language, and carrying on manufactures of coir, yarn, and rope, fine rush mats, fans, and tatties. The children are taught to read; the women are prettily dressed, and morality is good.'

Addu became very important during World War 2 when the British, alarmed by Japanese attacks on north-eastern India and Sri Lanka, decided to establish a top secret harbour in the lagoon, packing it with a hundred ships and seaplanes. Gan island, where the population was easily persuaded to shift temporarily to Hithadhoo for fear of a Japanese attack, was converted into a rough but versatile military airport. To facilitate wartime communication, the Maldivian government placed Addu under the direct control of the Maldivian government representative in Colombo. On the atoll's islands the British Royal Marines placed large guns covering the kandu entrances. A seaplane squadron was stationed in southern Hithadhoo and ammunition stored ashore.

Relations between Adduans and the British were friendly but hampered by harshly enforced laws from Male' against any form of trading. The clashes and punishments that resulted from this confrontation between Adduans and the Male' police embittered relations between the capital and Addu, and forbode ill if the repressive situation continued.


map of southern atolls of maldives 1945
Southern atolls of Maldives
Section of 'Maldive South'
Survey of India map, 1945




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