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Memoir on the Inhabitants of the Maldiva Islands 1834-1835 - pt.1
by Lieutenant I. A. Young (Indian Navy) and Mr. W. Christopher (Indian Navy)
from 'Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society from 1836 to 1838', pp.54-86
Scanned from original document in 2009, with minor spelling and Maldivian word corrections.
The terms 'Mahomedan' and 'Mahomedanism' have been replaced with 'moslem' and 'Islam'.


Owing to the want of accurate and particular information respecting the position and dangers of the groups composing the Maldiva Islands, any near approach to them is generally avoided by navigators, except in passing through one wide channel, in the parallel of 1' 30" North latitude. Hence the islands being seldom visited, their productions, and resources, the language, disposition, customs, etc. of the inhabitants, have remained nearly unknown.

It appeared desirable, therefore, when the Honorable Company's Ship Benares was sent to survey the islands, that as much information as possible should be collected regarding those subjects. But the nature of the surveying duties would not admit of familiar intercourse with the natives, for the vessel remained so short a time at any one island, that, tbe jealousy and suspicion with which the natives regarded her presence were scarcely overcome before it became necessary to proceed to some other.

We volunteered to remain at the islands on the return of the Benares to Bombay, with a view to learn the language (which was the principal object), and to gain whatever knowledge we could of the laws, customs, etc. of the natives.

The permission of Government having been received from Bombay, we took the opportunity, while the Benares was at Cochin, to make such preparations for our stay on the islands as seemed necessary, providing ourselves, at the same time, with a small supply of vegetable and fruit seeds of which, however, we had not the satisfaction of distributing more than a small portion amongst the islanders, the greater part having been destroyed by vermin on ship board.

On the return of the Benares to Male', or King's Island (so called from the residence there of the Sultan), we landed under the directions of Captain Moresby and communicated with the authorities, who procured us permission to remain on the island, and an audience of the Sultan, at which we were well received. The preliminary arrangements settled, we sent our things on shore, with the men from the ship whose services we were premitted to have, and took up our abode in the building assigned to us on the 4th June 1834, and on the 8th the Benares left Male' for Bombay.

During our stay on the islands we kept a journal, from which this Memoir has been compiled, containing such information as we were able to collect, together with a narrative of our personal adventure. That this memoir is very imperfect, and the information in it very defective, we are too sensible; but we hope some allowance will be made for us, in consideration of the short period of our residence.

Much time was necessarily spent in acquiring a sufficient knowledge of the language for communicating with the natives, and the period which we intended to devote to collecting information on the above points was curtailed in consequence of our sickness, which eventually compelled us to quit the island.

Note: We had been only three weeks on the islands, when Lieutenant Young was taken ill with fever, from which he was suffering when Mr. Christopher left Male' on the 7th July in a native boat, in company with a public officer, who was deputed by the Sultan to render assistance to the crew of a vessel (which proved to be an English Schooner, the Adonis from the Mauritius) wrecked on one of the islands of Kolhumadulu Atoll. Thence we returned on the 28th of July; Lieutenant Young, who was confined to his bed all that time, was forced to quit Male' on the 17th August, with the men from the Benares, all of whom had fallen sick. A few days after their departure, Mr. Christopher was taken, ill, and after struggling against the fever for some time, he was obliged to quit the place which he did on the 9th September 1835.

There are in the atoll where the Sultan resides, about fifty islands, none exceeding three miles in length, and one in breadth. In consequence of their lowness, not being in general more than five feet above the level of the sea, on first approaching, one would imagine them to be clusters, or rows of coconut trees growing out of the water.

No ground is found with the lead at 200 fathoms depth, close on the outside of the coral banks and islands. The descent was very abrupt, but it was never observed that the rock curved in below the surface, towards the centre of the atoll, so as to lessen the base. The natives are of opinion, that the islands decrease in number and gradually waste away by the constant action of the surf; but individuals who have stated this, have also acknowledged that within their own recollection, barren sand banks have become habitable islands, thickly covered with fruit trees, etc.

Of the increase of a sand bank, one of us (Mr. Christopher) witnessed an indisputable proof: on a bank which had risen from the centre of a reef, of nearly circular form, and half a mile in diameter, and which had at the time attained an elevation of five feet above the level of the sea; a piece of driftwood was observed buried two feet under the broken pieces of coral and sand which composed the bank.

On the outer edge of this reef (between which, and the bank, there was a channel a few hundred yards broad and twelve feet deep) the branch coral had nearly risen to the surface, so as to receive and break the force of the surf.

In fairness to the natives it should however be stated in reference to their opinion mentioned above, that on one occasion, he (Mr. Christopher) observed the roots of the coconut trees below high water mark, the trees having been destroyed by the salt water. On another, he saw coconut trees growing, the roots of which were laid bare by the water; and another fact noticed by him was that of a mosque at Male' being disconnected from the island by the surf washing away the intermediate sand.

The island of Male', where the Sultan resides, is situated about the centre of the atoll. On approaching it, the view is of the same character as that of all the other islands; but on nearing it, boats are seen at anchor off the town, which consists of huts raised under the shade of the spreading branches of the coconut, and surrounded by fruit trees of various kinds. The town is regularly laid out, the streets being straight and long, running in parallel lines, intersected at intervals by others at right angles. The houses have, in general, a yard or compound attached where fruit and flowers are produced. One of the latter, the jasmine is very plentiful, scattering, when blooming, a delicious perfume through the streets.

The island of Male' is about one mile in length, by three-fourths in breadth. It is surrounded on three sides by a wall of coral, about 450 yards from the beach and nearly all dry, which being roughly built up occasionally with a little labor, affords excellent shelter to the boats of the natives, there being from six to twelve feet depth of water within it on the northern side. On this side stands the principal fort of the island, equidistant from the eastern and western extremities.

The other defences on Male' are scarcely worthy of remark. The fort being at present filled up with earth, is a solid mass in height about twenty feet, faced with stone, and on it are mounted ten guns, which though very old and almost useless, are taken care of by being covered in.

As no native inscription is to be found on this fort, similar to those on the bastion built at the angles of the wall that partly surrounds the islands, and as it exhibits signs of more skill than has been evinced in the other defences, which appear to have been constructed by the natives, having a round front and a gentle slope upwards from the inner line cf the base, it seems probable that it is an erection of the Portuguese. It is surmounted by a high flag-staff, and on either side a wall with bastions at intervals extends from it, stretching along the beach, and enclosing the island on all sides except the south, which is inaccessible to boats, owing to an unbroken reef nearly dry, running parallel with the beach at a distance of three hundred yards. The wall, however, is at present in ruins, though it must be a comparatively late work, since it does not appear from Pyrard de Laval's book that it existed when he was on the island.

The Sultan's palace is a large upper-roomed house, with a peaked roof covered with thick sheet of copper in a walled enclosure, which is surrouuded by a shallow moat, comprising an area of about a quarter of a square mile. Within this space there is also a well built magazine, besides several other houses, and a neat building raised on stone arches from which the ladies witness the games exhibited before the court on festivals.

One of the abovementioned buildings is said to contain a variety of arms, and relics taken frem wrecked vessels; and it is currently reported and believed that there is a tank near the palace filled with ambergris.

We were at first accommodated in a house belonging to one of the Viziers, or Sultan's counsellors, situated without the space enclosed by the moat, having a small compound, in which we put down some pineapples, melons, yams, etc. but we were not long enough on the island to witness the result of our labor, though while we remained there, the young plantation seemed to be thriving. The situation of the house was in some repects a good one; but it was so surrounded with trees that there was not a free circulation of air. On this being represented by us to the authorities, they most kindly offered to erect a house on whatever spot we might select, and we pointed out one, which was open to the breeze and in a retired situation; but as it was out of the town, it did not suit the head people, who said they wished us to live amongst them, stating as a reason that they could then better learn and more readily attend to our wants and comforts. We willingly acceded to their wishes and were shown a house belonging to one of the Viziers, which after a few slight alterations, made a comfortable domicile. It had a boarded floor raised on piles about four feet from the ground, and being in a tolerably good situation, the circulation of air was not much obstructed.

Pyrard de Laval states that much of the water on Male' was unwholesome and that he esteemed it a privilege to be allowed to have a supply of the water which was used by the head people. We found wells very common all over the island, few compounds being without one; but we never beard that the natives entertained such an opinion as he has expressed respecting the quality of the water. Our host, the Vizier, and his family used the water of the well in the yard and we followed their example. Mr. Christopher however carefully abstained from drinking unboiled water during the whole of his residence; but as his health was better on landing, this fact alone may be insufficient to account for his preserving it longer than the rest of the party.

The inhabitants of these islands have, in general, a pleasing cast of countenance, and in color they much resemble the moslems of India. Their general height is below the European standard, about five feet two inches. On Male' many exhibit in their physical conformation, an admixture of the African, doubtless from the Zanzibar slaves, occasionally imported by the Muscat vessels; but the proportion of persons of this description to the whole population is inconsiderable. Some individuals here of the higher orders have a much fairer complexion than the common people, which is probably attributable to descent from Persian stock. It is a remarkable peculiarity that the skin of the natives almost universally, is marked with stains on many parts of their bodies, or blotches of a lighter color than the natural skin.

The ordinary dress of the men consists of short drawers with a cloth wrapped round the waist, and another about the head, the waistcloth being twisted into a knot in the front, which is supported by a string encircling the loins. The head people wear, in addition, an embroidered sash of silk or cotton about the waist, and on Fridays when attending the grand mosque, a kind of shirt (white) reaching to the ankles, with a turban of the same color.

The men shave their heads, but are free to allow as much of the hair of the face to grow as they like. The women's habiliments consist merely of a cloth wrapped round the waist, descending to the knees, which is secured by a string, and a long shirt; also a cloth tied round the head. In contradistinction to the men, they allow their hair to grow long and fasten it up behind. Like their sex everywhere else, they are fond of ornaments for the person though the number and variety of articles for this parpose which they possess, are very limited. They wear bangles, etc. and their ears are pierced when very young, all round the edges of which they hang light trinkets. The men wear none.

Their houses are ill built and dark, having at most only one small window and frequently none at all; in fact, they are but large-sized huts with a peaked roof. In general about twenty-eight feet long by twelve broad, and fifteen feet high to the top of the roof. They are made of a substantial frame work of wood, thatched all over with coconut leaves; the floor is plastered and the sides are sometimes boarded; a partition near the middle divides the house into two rooms, one of which is private, and the other open to all visitors. In this public room there are two ranges of seats; the one on the right side on entering, is considered the most honorable, and the other on the left (carried across the house) is appropriated for the common people. The degree of respect intended to be shown to any individual, is marked by the seat to which he is invited.

Inferiors always receive the king's relations and other head men, standing, and remain so while they are present, unless invited by them to be seated. Some of the houses contain a few articles of furniture, such as a small table, chairs, and boxes or trunks.

Though it would be thought improper to enter the private, or women's apartment, females are not kept from the view of strangers, or in a state of exclusion, as in most moslem societies. They enjoy every reasonable liberty, of which, as well as of the kindness of their dispositions, we had a pleasing evidence in a visit which we received from some ladies of rank during our sickness. They do not, however, eat along with the men but after them. Marriage is not very early engaged in, but a plurality of wives is allowed: few, however, are able to support more than one wife, which decidedly contributes to the happiness of both parties. So far as we could observe, there prevailed, very generally, a mutual affection between husband and wife.

Intrigues, however, are not uncommon, and the men show no small ingenuity in carrying them on. when the illicit correspondence is with a married woman. For a widow to live with a favorite without marriage, is not accounted criminal and scarcely disgraceful. What is very remarkable, however, is that there are none of that degraded class of human beings, professed prostitutes, on these islands.

Children of both sexes are required to read the Koran through, under the tuition of priests of the inferior order, and their lesson is begun very early, at three years of age. To be able to read is all that appears to be thought necessary, and it is not pretended that more is attempted to be taught. When once through the Koran, the children receive no further instructions except being initiated in the ceremonials of religion.

The teachers are permitted by the parents to use a barbarous mode of punishing the children if they show an aversion to learn Arabic, namely, that of squeezing lime-juice into their eyes, besides flogging and beating. As this cruel practice does not accord with the general character of the people, it is probably permitted only under a deep sense of the great importance of that branch of education in a religious point of view.

As to a knowledge of writing, the children are left to acquire it themselves if they feel inclined, in the best way they can, and hence arises the great difficulty experienced in determining either the true sound of letters or the orthography of words. Most of the boys, however, from a prevailing passion for music, soon gain a knowledge of the character, as all songs are written in it from the Persian or Hindoostanee, there being very few in their own language.

The young children are covered with ornaments of different metals according to the wealth of the parents, to distinguish them from those whose parents are poorer, All go unclothed until about five or six years of age, and cleanliness is much attended to.

The men are in general of an indolent habit, and disinclined to work, although they readily assist each other, willingly exerting themselves where strength is required, as in launching boats, etc. and when public duties are to be performed; they are carried through with spirit, at least on King's Island. At this place the inhabitants pay no taxes, that is, they are exempt from contributions exacted from the rest of the Sultan's subjects. They, therefore, do not feel any obligation to work beyond providing for the demands of nature, and this they acquire by becoming dependents of any of the chiefs, most of whom retain as many followers as they may be able to support, a large retinue being considered a sign of rank and power.

The laboring classes, exclusive of those engaged in pursuits connected with trade, follow various employments from which they draw the means of subsistence; the most common of these are, fishing, gathering coconuts, drawing toddy, weaving cloth, and collecting the small cowries.

The domestic duties are mostly attended to by the women. They also beat out the fibres of the coconut husk, after it has been soaked, separate the thick from the thin, and twist them with the fingers into yarn; make mats, prepare the bread-fruit for keeping, by slicing and drying it in the sun, extract oil from the nuts, spin cotton, and dye thread for the loom; make sweetmeats of minced coconut, jaggery and sugar-candy, and wait on the men at their meals.

Both sexes appear to derive much enjoyment from a habit of walking about in the open air in the moonlight, in which all classes indulge till a late hour. They seldom, during the period of the full moon, go to bed before 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, and then rarely rise again before noon. They have three meals a day; one shortly after rising, another about six hours later, and the third just before retiring to rest.

The principal articles of food are the following, rice, fish (the Bonito most commonly used dried), bread-fruit prepared in various ways, but most palatable when sliced thin and fried crisp, though in any form it is not accounted wholesome, probably from the fruit being plucked immature, coconuts, jaggery, and occasionally a few fruits and vegetables. All these are produced on the island, except the rice, which is brought from abroad. This forms the largest constituent of every meal, being considered necessary for the preservation of health, and is generally dressed mixed with grated coconut.

A few articles, such as tea, coffee, sugar, etc. are imported from the Coast, for those who can afford such luxuries. Oil is sometimes used in cookery, when variety is desired, but the preparations in which it enters, though relished by the natives, are very unsavoury to the palate of a stranger. There are a few sheep and cows on King's Island, some of which are slaughtered on festivals, and occasionally for the Sultan's kitchen. The head people object to private individuals possessing any, alleging that the fruit trees, which overtop the enclosures, would soon be destroyed by them. Their loyalty, however, or perhaps some less elevated feeling, will not allow them to demur to such damage when caused by the Sultan's cattle. The custom of chewing betel-nut, with its usual accompaniments of betel-leaf, chunam, kaat (catechu), and tobacco is common amongst all classes.

The use of fire arms is only just being acquired amongst the Maldivians. To be able to shoot with a musket, is considered no mean accomplishment; the dignity of the Fandiyaru even not being lessened by his employing hours daily in killing crows! The principal men are very anxious to learn the use of the great gun. The few old rusty cannon on the island are, however, hardly available for practice, and powder and shot are scarce.

On festivals, feats of strength and skill are exhibited under rules and restrictions to prevent injury or danger to the performers. Wrestling, which formed part of these games, was lately prohibited, as some of the parties were injured by the falls they got. The weapons employed in these exercises are swords, spears, and the quarter-staff, to teach the use of which, and prepare the several actors, there are masters appointed by the Sultan. It is not deemed beneath the dignity of the principal men to take part in these games. We, on one occasion saw an officer of high rank, the Handeygirin, or Public Treasurer, amongst the players at quarter-staff; and we were told that the former Sultan not unfrequently entered the lists with his subjects.

There is a barbarous religious observance practised which, however, is reprobated by the head men, though they and even the Sultan generally attend to witness it. The company being assembled, the performers step forth singly, and lacerate their bodies in various ways, by cutting themselves with knives, or passing spears, or iron bars, through their flesh. A Chittagong trader, who had been invited to witness these performances, stated to us the next day that he was so shocked at what he saw that he could not wait the conclusion. Some of the actors thrust an iron bar of the thickness of a man's finger, through the fleshy part of the cheeks, passing it in from one side of the face, and drawing it out at the other. Others cut themselves all over the arms, back and head with knives.

Having been informed that the Emir-el-Bahr had presided, Mr. Christopher went to his house, and was shown the various instruments used at these revolting rites. Amongst them was a spear (the largest) with a blade 5 inches broad, and a staff 3 inches in diameter, and 12 feet long. The Emir informed him that this ponderous instrument was for the purpose of being passed through the thigh. To effect this, an incision, he said, was first made with a knife, and the operator with the assistance of one of his pupils, holding the spear (it being too heavy for the former to sustain the whole weight in such a situation) steadily passed it through, while an assistant or two raised the flesh to dilate the incision. The master professes to be able, by the power of charms, to cheek any haemorrhage, but acknowledges that no charms will avail to prevent a moderate issue of blood. Although this is a rite of Pagan or Hindu origin, the people believe that the Koran commands such performances by true moslems, and it is very common for men to be hired, as jugglers are, to exhibit to strangers.




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