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Prelude to the Addu revolt against Male' in 1959
Michael O'Shea
Suvadive Republic 1959-1963, part 5

After the British left in 1945 at the end of WW2, there were food shortages in the south of Maldives. Moosabe Kokko believes they had fallen into an 'easy' way of life, and the famine was a result of their lack of preparedness:
'In Huvadhu atoll it was very bad and some people died there. In Addu, no one died but it was a very difficult time. Where the British had been in Hithadhoo and at Meedhoo-Hulhudhoo, they had occupied land which had been used for agriculture. Gan which they took over entirely during the war, was formerly a major agricultural island. During the war, the people had been trading for their food and the sudden departure of the British forces left the people unprepared for the changes and challenges they had to face.'

However this does not fully explain why the southern atolls, with its large dhoani fleets and wealthy trading families, were areas of chronic famine and malnutrition. Huvadhu had not been occupied by the British during WW2 and local food production should have been stimulated by the restriction of imports.

In 1943, Mohamed Ameen and British Flight Lieutenant Walker conducted an investigation into wartime food shortages and the Maldivian fishing industry. Their report pinpointed seasonal decreases in fish catches and subsequent falls in income combined with an increase in import prices, as the fundamental causes of starvation. The inquiry had been prompted by several years of famine in the northern atolls and a large demonstration in Male' supported by resident Indian and Ceylonese traders against the government. The crowd had demanded the restoration of ex-king Shamsudeen, the end of new Maldivian government controls over fish exports, a meeting of the majlis and an end to inter-island travel restrictions.

Other important factors in the unrest were government suppression of maulood prayers in the Male' wards and disputes over rationing. In his letter to the British Governor in Colombo in 1943, Gujarati trader A. M. Tayabally claims Mohamed Ameen met Male' community leaders and told them the police would shoot at any future demonstrations. Tayabally says the leader of their delegation was 'coaxed' or 'bribed' by Ameen, and that important trade matters were left unresolved, although restrictions on travel were lifted and a majlis meeting promised.

Later, in 1944, the Maldivian government gave fish export guarantees to the British in colonial Ceylon in return for food credits, and the government-run Bodu Stores were established to maintain reasonable prices and provide credit during periods of low fish catches. However, without motorised dhoanis, neither export fish nor imported food could be distributed efficiently. Low income and intermittent supplies led to chronic malnutrition and starvation especially on Huvadhu atoll where fish catch numbers often had sharp seasonal variations.

When the British returned in the 1957, unauthorised trading once again caused problems between the people and Maldivian officials trying to enforce the government ban. There was the usual bartering of food and many islanders were enthralled by the luxury items available through the Gan base's NAAFI store. Adduans confidence and expectations grew as the emerging base seemed to be offering regular employment and steadily improving wages with the opportunity to train into more skilled positions.

For the Male' government, the new base being constructed on Gan was an excellent bargaining chip for a renegotiation with Britain of its protectorate status and the granting of international borrowing rights. An unintended result of the Maldivian government attempts to put pressure on the British government by delaying majlis approval for Gan, was the encouragement of separatist tendencies in the south which was providing the unskilled labour for the project.

The Gan base and the Majlis
The building of the British RAF base at Gan island in Addu atoll was the first large development project ever sponsored by the Maldivian government. Although king Mohamed Fareed and prime minister Ibrahim Ali Didi signed the initial agreement in 1956, the British began construction in 1957 before the project had received ratification by the Maldivian cabinet and legislature, the majlis. According to Ibrahim Shihab,'leadership (at that time) was traditionally democratic. The government was run with the consent and to the satisfaction of both the cabinet and the majlis.' Shihab shared the view of many other members of the government that regarding previous defence arrangements with the UK, 'the Maldives had been the loser... politically and socially'. Prime minister Didi found his attempt to pressure the rest of the Maldivian government into sudden consent for the base met with stubborn and eloquent resistance.

'I have been told by a reliable senior official of that time that the prime minister's policy was based on the fact that Maldives was a small defenceless country which needed 'acceptance and smiles' from the powerful British,' wrote Shihab. 'I did not get any more details... The matter was brought to the official attention of Cabinet at a morning meeting... I was there... The Prime Minister briefly explained the situation to us and then said that in fifteen minutes time the British High Commissioner from Ceylon would be arriving to sign the agreement. The prime minister presented us with a document written in English. For a few minutes the members of cabinet expressed their thoughts and views which were all fundamentally the same — that they could not discuss such an important issue until they had read closely a Dhivehi translation of the document and had time to think about it... It ended without the document being signed, and the High Commissioner left empty-handed. Now it became known that previously another document had been already been signed on this matter between the British and Maldivian governments.'

Resigning itself to an extended renegotiation of the base agreement, the UK, to the delight of the people of Addu and the southern atolls, decided to continue with the actual construction without delay.

Costain's yard on Gan island, Addu atoll, 1959
Photo: Ian (John) Morrison

The British firm, Costain Ltd. was already moving heavy machinery into Addu, and a special liaison corps of Maldivian administrators under the direct control of the prime minister, who visited the atoll regularly, were actively co-operating in the construction operation.

Resettlement of the Gan islanders

gan village addu atoll maldives 1958Gan village, Addu atoll Maldives 1958
Photo: George Egleton

husking coconuts, Gan island, Addu atoll Maldives 1957Young men and boys on Gan island street, 1957
Photo: John McKie

gan villagers 1959 addu atoll maldives Gan villagers 1959
Photo: Ian Morrison

The resettlement of 800 Gan islanders proved to be a difficult problem. The prime minister was politically popular in the south and his offer of a choice of an empty area in Hulhudhoo-Meedhoo on Addu, or the large and fertile islands of Kaadedhoo or another Gan in Huvadhu atoll, was seriously considered. Some people didn't want to go at all, but the prime minister's argument that compared their forced movement with the Muhammad's hijira proved particularly effective. Gan-Huvadhu directly across the Equatorial channel was easily the most attractive option but the prime minister had not counted on the personal opposition of his important political ally and one of the country's richest traders, Huvadhu atoll chief Hirihamaaz Kaleyfaan, who held the lease to this fertile agricultural island. The embarrassed prime minister faced a hostile reception when he later told the people of Gan-Addu that their new island home was not available. In desperation he asked them again to decide what they wanted and the angry crowd demanded the adjacent inhabited island of Feydhoo.

Thus the resettlement program came to involve the movement of hundreds of people among the islands of Feydhoo and Maradhoo. The prime minister, and his acting secretary Ibrahim Shihab, encountered a barrage of water, stones and coconut husks from an angry crowd of women when they attempted to land at Feydhoo and explain the move. Shihab returned early to Male' and his critical report was the final nail in the prime minister's political coffin.

Ibrahim Nasir

ibrahim nasir maldives prime minister and president
Ibrahim Nasir

Prime Minister Ibrahim Ali Didi's house in Male' was threatened by an angry mob and he was forced to resign on the 11 December 1957. The majlis nominated a much younger man the 30 year old nationalist Ibrahim Nasir as the new prime minister. The British were not pleased with the change.

Major W. Phillips, who had been a tea planter in Ceylon for 46 years when he was appointed the UK political advisor in the Maldive Islands at Gan in 1957. His article 'The Maldivian Tangle' was published in the Journal of the Royal Commonwealth Society in 1960:
'Nasir and his supporters were of very different character and opinions to the courteous Ibrahim Ali Didi. They had listened to too many questionable broadcasts which were loudly advocating Asian and African independence from Western influence and encouraging extreme nationalism to be willing to renew easily agreements with Britain. This was coupled with their inborn native suspicion and caution.'

Phillips was a respected ornithologist in his late sixties with numerous articles published, dealing chiefly with bird life in the Maldives. His habit of collecting birds and mounting them as specimens, led to him being nicknamed 'the birdkiller' by Addu islanders.

Maldivian historian Mohamed Luthufee believed that Nasir was in fact a capable leader with 'a vision of the future' who established a dictatorship 'formalised in a democratic way'.

'Nasir stopped all the old petty feudal customs,' Luthfee said. 'He demolished most of the old king's palace and the old wall in Male'. He wore western dress and wanted to be the first modern leader of the Maldives. Nasir gave jobs to capable people, reclaimed a large area of Male', and established the enduring State Trading Organisation. But he was unpredictable when it came to punishments and rewards, and personal matters also merited police attention. For example when I married one of his ex-wives, Nasir had me arrested at the wedding reception and exiled for two months!'

In Addu, the British had their first taste of the new administration when the ineffectual atoll committee formed to oversee the resettlement was officially disbanded and its work transferred into the hands of Hithadhoo's rehabilitated Abdullah Afeef. Nasir also ordered that the movement of villagers cease until the liaison officer consulted in Male' with the home ministry, and a special committee from Male' would be visiting Addu to investigate the situation. Gan Commanding Officer Schofield was assured by Adam Haleem, a 'school chum' of Nasir's, that the new prime minister was 'very clever. (Haleem) does not think he or his cabinet are against the Gan move but they were against the way it was handled.'

For Adduans, the political situation was temporarily overshadowed by a serious dispute between Maldivians and Ceylonese labourers at the base. In early January 1958, two Feydhoo women admitted having affairs with two Ceylonese men and identified them at a special parade. Subsequent fighting between young men from each group led to total strike by the Maldivian workers and within weeks Pakistani labourers were being imported to replace many of the Ceylonese.

The special committee sent by the Maldivian government arrived in the midst of this trouble, but the disturbances had no apparent effect on the discussions with the senior British officers. Commander Schofield described the committee as 'very friendly... very sensible'. He learnt that ex-prime minister Ibrahim Ali Didi had overspent by Rf 48,000 on the Gan operation, placing unfair financial burden on the government. An important side-issue was also brought to Schofield's attention, namely Male's disappointment with the 500 ton ship Addiyatal Rahman presented to the Maldivian government as a gift from the UK. Four months earlier, the vessel had offloaded aviation fuel at Gan and was then sent to Male' for presentation. It had been found drifting south of Ceylon by a Russian ship and towed ignominiously into Colombo harbour for repairs. Maldivian officials inspected the Addiyatal Rahman and Schofield notes:
'they are not impressed with its appearance. It is much smaller than they imagined and apparently the engine still overheats. It was certainly in no state to be handed over when it passed though here [Gan] and my report to the UK High Commissioner at that time stated this. It is all a great pity because the Maldivians have set great store by this ship and the Air Ministry and Commonwealth Relations office in London told me this in April 1957.'

A murder
As Nasir and his cabinet in Male' swallowed this insult from the British government and carefully considered their options over the base agreement, a Ceylonese carpenter was murdered in Feydhoo in March 1958.

Hassan Saeed from Hithadhoo in an interview in 1997 said, 'The carpenter was working on the new houses built for Gan people on Feydhoo, and formed a relationship with a woman named Safiyya. She was good-looking and quite popular with other men from the base as well. But Safiyya was already betrothed to a Feydhoo man and one night when the Ceylonese went to meet Safiyya in the usual spot, a banana grove, he was murdered. There were no arrests. An investigating panel from England spent 10 days at Gan looking into the murder but they could discover nothing. Safiyya refused to give any evidence because she had been threatened.

'Soon afterwards, she became very sick with a genital infection. There were no medical facilities on Addu at that time and she was taken to a fanditha man in Hithadhoo because evil spirits like jinni or handi were thought responsible for her illness. The fanditha man organised ten boys to sit around her sick bed and recite the Koran. They still remember her putrid smell. She was under fanditha treatment for three months but her condition deteriorated and after being taken back to Feydhoo she died within weeks.'

As a result of this and other fights between Ceylonese skilled workers and Maldivians, the British changed their employment practices at the base. Ceylonese were only to be used as service staff, and Pakistanis were employed as skilled labourers. They were Moslems and the Maldivians generally got on with them.

This episode highlights the traditional antagonism between Maldivians and Ceylonese. In Addu, Hassan Saeed claimed the main cause of the fighting was the inferior status the skilled Ceylonese workers attempted to impose on the Maldivians. These events also help to explain Ceylon's indifference to an independent Addu.

The effect of the 1958 negotiations
Meanwhile the UK High Commissioner began to put pressure on Nasir for a final agreement over the base. When the commissioner's ship, the HMS Gambia arrived in Male' on 3 March and stayed for over a month, the Maldivian government protested that it was being pressured by gunboat diplomacy. A prominent Male' magician sailed daily around the Gambia while conducting a smoke ritual and casting inauspicious spells on the British.

Prime Minister Nasir declined to co-operate because the UK was refusing to establish an aid package for the Maldives until the Gan agreement was signed. An offer of 10,000 pounds immediately for a shorter 50 year lease, was rejected by the Maldivians. Then the British made ill-advised public protests about the lack of appreciation for the 'one million rupee Addiyatal Rahman'. The Maldivian government decided to seek advice from their counterparts in India and Ceylon, and the British must have been further disturbed by reports in the New York Times that 'enlightened Maldivians were opposed to allowing a foreign power to establish a base on their soil in contravention of the neutralist policy of the Maldivian government (and) were not prepared to enter into a long-term agreement committing future generations.'

In Addu, surprisingly, the Maldivian government politely authorised the British to bulldoze a 60 metre wide strip through the entire length of Gan as the centre line of the new runway. Historian Mohamed Luthufee claims that throughout this period of difficult negotiations, Maldivian government officials stationed on Gan were never ordered to cease co-operation with the British. As the high level negotiations dragged on, construction work on Gan was impeded only by an outbreak of dysentery that spread through the atoll from Maradhoo where 22 people died in May. The British provided effective advice and medical assistance during this and other epidemics that occasionally broke out in the islands around Gan. Both governments seemed close to agreement in July, but the Maldivian government's negotiating habits infuriated the British. 'Our government has shown great patience and has done its best to meet all the reasonable demands made by the Maldivians,' wrote Major Phillips, 'and the Maldivians on their part, apparently find it difficult to make up their minds as to exactly what they want and, in keeping with the usual custom, defer decisions and change clauses time after time... The Maldivian government began to regret its co-operation in the work and to be fearful that the people of Addu, having been so well paid and so well treated by the British would become too sophisticated and prosperous to return to the old order of near serfdom.'

Towards the end of 1958, the British at Gan were told to cease work until the agreement was signed. Major Phillips protested that the contractor Costain Ltd was financially bound to finish the base in two years, and if the Maldivian government wanted the work to cease it must take financial responsibility for Costain company's losses. Nasir then issued instructions meant to paralyse the building of the base at Gan and wages were withheld from the workers.

In response, Costain company's representatives on Addu began to secretly lobby influential men on Addu to secede from the Maldives. This was revealed by Salih Ali Didi during a personal interview in 1997.

The real effect of this private lobbying, and its promise of a sterling-based economy, is difficult to judge, but it reinforced the perception among Adduans that the British were in favour of revolt. The Maldivian labour force, now numbering over 2,000, reacted angrily to the instructions from Male' and in October a Hithadhoo mob threatened to attack the Male' government office at Gan. The raid was thwarted by the chief liaison officer Mohamed Luthufee, supported by Major Phillips who called out armed security forces to the beach and sent motorboats patrolling the water. The mob dispersed at Maradhoo when they learnt of these defences, but ill feeling towards Male' rule remained. In November, Nasir ordered the liaison office to cease supplying labour but in response Costain Ltd. hired its own dhoanis to transport the workers, and construction continued despite the difficulties over payment of wages.

Mohamed Luthufee alerted the Maldivian government to the seriousness of the situation on the atoll but his request for armed police from Male' was completely disregarded. He describes the situation on Addu in December 1958 as 'an atom bomb waiting to explode.' The button was pressed on the night of December 31.

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