Maldives Culture -
Maldives Culture - maldives island
Latest Updates arrow Ibn Battuta 1343-45 arrow Pyrard - Maldives 1602-1607 arrow Pyrard - Maldives - Vol.1 - Chapter 14
Latest Updates
Advanced Search
Free Dhivehi-English Dictionary
Presidency of Mohamed Nasheed
Gayyoom's Dictatorship 1978-2008
Buddhism and Islam
Ibn Battuta 1343-45
Pyrard 1602-07
Rosset 1885
Maldives 1900-1922
Maldives 1924-1953
Majlis rule 1954-57
Suvadive Republic 1959-1963
President Nasir 1969-1978
Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik
Maldives History
Maldives Art
Scripts of Maldives
Maps of Maldives
Traditional Stories
Magic - Fanditha
Photographs - Modern
Photographs - Historic
Ships of the Indian Ocean
Social Customs
Modern Stories
PDF Print E-mail
The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil
Francois Pyrard de Laval
translated into English in 1887 from the third French edition of 1619 by Albert Gray assisted by H.C.P. Bell

Vol.1 Chapter 14

Form of the government of the state, of the magistrates, of justice and the laws.

Naibs - circuit judges, and Katibs
The government of the Maldive state is royal, very ancient and absolute; the king is feared and dreaded, and everything depends upon him. I have said that the islands are divided into thirteen atolls - a natural division, which has been followed in government; for of these are constituted thirteen provinces, over each of which is a chief called a naib. These naibs, or chiefs of provinces, are priests or doctors of the law, who have an eye as well to all matters of religion and education, as to the administration of justice in the province, giving their orders to the priests under them.

For the atolls are again divided into many islands, and in each one containing more than forty-one men, as I said, there is a doctor called a katib, the religious superior of that island, who has under him the priests incumbent of the mosques. All these see to the instruction of the people in the law: they are supported in part by fruits, which everyone is bound to yield, and in part from certain endowments assigned to them by the king, according to their degree.

But the naibs, besides their duties and authority in religion, are also appointed to administer justice, each in his own government. They are the sole judges in the land, as well in matters civil as criminal; and if one wants to go to law, he must go find the naib or attend his coming to the place. For the naibs four times a year go the circuit of the islands in their several governments (footnote 1887: It is said that the naibs 'travel the circuit' only twice a year now), and hold visitations as well ecclesiastical as judicial. This brings them in great revenues, for it is then the people pay their dues, besides which they receive many presents from a multitude of people, and of such they are very greedy.

Be it remarked that throughout the Maldive islands there are no judges but these thirteen naibs, for the katibs and the priests of the mosques are overseers only.

Fandiyaru - chief judge
Over these naibs is a superior, who resides at Male', and is always near the person of the king; he is called the 'Fandiyaru' (footnote 1887: Derivation uncertain, but perhaps connected with the Tamil pandaram, 'religious mendicant, monk, or friar' (Winslow)), and not only ecclesiastical superior of the whole kingdom, but also sovereign judge.

Wherefore, if any, after pleading before the naib, is loth to obey his judgment, be it in a matter civil or criminal, he appeals to the Fandiyaru, who decides all matters brought before him, taking the advice of some naibs who are about him, of the katibs, and of certain personages called 'mugari beykalun', that is to say, doctors or learned men, who for all that are not officers: and he gives no judgment but by the assistance of four or five of such persons at the least.

These mugari beykalun know the whole of their Koran by heart (all others read it only), besides having a knowledge of other sciences. They are invited in state to all feasts, preachings, and ceremonies, and are greatly respected and honoured of all men. There are but few of them, not fifteen in all the islands.

The Fandiyaru is called 'Kadi' in the Arabic tongue. And yet after the judgment of the Fandiyaru some will plead to the king himself, who gives order for justice to be done and executed, and this by six lords, his chief officers, who manage the most important affairs of the realm. They are called 'muskulhin', as who should say 'elders' (footnote 1887: Now known as 'vazeerun', ministers.)

The Fandiyaru, assisted by the two katibs of Male' island, and by the naib of the atoll, along with some of these doctors, also makes his visitation throughout the island of Male', just as each naib in his atoll. He is also assisted by his officers, who carry a long whip, of which I shall speak hereafter, for correcting the delinquents: he makes what inquiries he thinks fit, with special regard to all matters of religion and justice.

All he meets without exception he makes to say their creed, and some prayers in Arabic, and then asks them the interpretation of the same in the Maldive language. If they know it not, he hath them whipped and scourged on the spot by his officers. The women dare not show themselves while he passes along the street, and if he should meet one without her veil, he would have her head shaved. So it is ordained by their law, and the naibs do the like.

Atoll tax collectors
Besides the naibs, there is in each province or atoll a man appointed and employed by the king to collect and levy his dues and revenues, and those of the christian king at Goa, to carry out his orders, and, in short, to manage his affairs. These are called varuveri (or atolhu veri) and they are highly honoured and respected. Such as come with any commission from the king address themselves to them, and they furnish whatsoever is needful in the way of attendants and guides for the islands of their atoll.

All the islands have each its separate wards and parishes, in like manner as Male', where there are five wards (footnote 1887: there are now only four), each with its headman, called 'muskulhi ava', the alderman of the ward, and nothing is done there but he knows of it; and if anything in the ward is required, whether for the use of the king or the people, he must be applied to, and no other, as having charge of everything there; and if anything is missing, it must be sought of him. The people of the ward treat him with great honour and respect - not that he can do nothing without the counsel and advice of the other elders and counsellors of the ward, but when he has any project in view, he summons them to his house or other place as it pleaseth him, to consider together of what is to be done; the same goes on at the other islands, for each one has a superior unto whom the folk of the ward give ear.

Fandiyaru's enforcers
Law in their language is called 'sakuva', and is administered at the house of the naibs, or at Male' at the house of the Fandiyaru, with the assistants above mentioned, and betimes also at the king's palace when the case is of grave importance. When one wishes to commence a suit, he applies to the judge or naib, and he sends one of his sergeants, of whom each has a certain number (footnote 1887: now numbering six), called 'dheyvaani', to cause the party appealed to appear; and if he be not in the same island, he is entitled to a writ of the naib, whereby he is directed to come to where the naib is, provided it be a place within his jurisdiction.

For if it be in that of another, the naib has no power therein, and in such case he is served with a writ of the Fandiyaru, who may summon a man from any part of the realm to the king's island where he resides. The writ is delivered to the katib, the headman of the island, who in presence of all delivers it to the person appealed, straitly warning him to go. In the which he dare not fail, for as many as disobey the behests of the law are not admitted to the company of the others, to go to mosque, or to eat or drink with them, and are treated as outside the pale of their law.

If a man, for example, some grandee, will not obey, the king sends his soldiers to constrain him. And if one likes not to plead before the naib, whether for cause that he is ill-disposed towards him, or that he favours him overmuch, then the plaintiff or the defendant who is appealed applies to the king, who makes order that justice be done by indifferent judges; the cause is then heard at the palace of the king, in the presence of all the grandees of the island.

Law courts
The parties plead their own causes. If it is an issue of fact, each brings three witnesses; and if they have none, the defendant is believed upon his oath, which he takes by touching with his hand the book of their law, the judge presenting it; and the plaintiff, if he be at all a man of the world, scrupulously observes whether his opponent really touches the book, and at the proper place.

If the issue be one of law, it is adjudged by the law. The judges receive nothing for their judgments, and nothing is due, save that the dheyvaani or sergeants get a twelfth part of the judgment debt or penalty. Slaves may not be witnesses, and their word is of no avail as evidence; and in like manner that of three women is taken as of one man.

The slaves are such as have become so, or have been brought from abroad and sold, for strangers wrecked there lose not their liberty if they had it before; if they were slaves, they remain so. In good truth, the slaves, who are called 'alhu', are of much more sorry condition than the rest. They can have but one wife, while all others are permitted to have three, and they can put them away and take them back but once only. The penalty for beating a slave is only half that for beating or assaulting a free man.

Debt bonded labour
Debtors are obliged, if they have no means of paying, to go into servitude, not as slaves, nor treated as such, but as natives of the country; they serve only their creditors or others who pay the money for their redemption. These bondsmen are called 'femuseyri' which is to say 'bondsman on loan', and this lasts till they be acquitted, and their children continue to be so forever if they do not pay.

Sometimes, when they are badly treated, they can get released by binding themselves to another, who pays for them; all their hire is their food and maintenance, and when they die their master takes all they had; and if that is not enough for the debt, the children remain in bond till the whole be paid. A great number of the people seek to be the femuseyri of grandees and men in office, and so to gain support and favour, for while they belong to nobody they are tormented by one another.

Prosecution and punishment
In the matter of crimes, a man must plead for justice to be done, and he must be a person of capacity to sue, except it were a crime punishable by the law, otherwise there is no public process in case of crime or injury committed on the person of another - unless, as I say, it is a crime against their law.

A wife cannot appeal in the court for the murder of her husband, but only the children or kindred; and if the children are of young age, time is given till they attain the age of sixteen years, to see if they desire to be avenged for the death of their father. In the meantime, the judge condemns him that is suspected of the murder to support the children of the deceased, and to teach them some art or craft; then, when they come of age, they may demand justice, or release and pardon the murderer; if not, he may be accused at any time thereafter.

For there, in the matter of an injury done to any private person, the person injured must be the complainant, otherwise the crime is annulled; nevertheless, if the king wills, he has justice done, without any other party to the cause; but that happens rarely.

The usual penalties are banishment to the desert islands of the south, as I have already said, mutilation of a member, or the scourge, which is the most common, but infinitely cruel. It is of thick leather straps, as long as the arm and as broad as the four fingers, and as thick as two; of these, five or six are fixed together in a haft of wood. With this, malefactors are chastised, and so cruelly beaten that full often they die of it. It is the usual penalty for great crimes, such as sodomy, incest, and adultery.

Women taken in adultery, besides the said penalty, have their hair cut off. (Footnote 1887: According to Christopher, if the woman has not given encouragement, the man is severely flogged, the injured husband being the administrator of the whip.) False witness and perjury are punished in the same way, the guilty party being also amerced in a money fine, which is given to the poor. If a wife or a daughter be ravished, the guilty party is punished as an adulterer, and in addition is obliged to settle a portion upon the wife or daughter. A thief who has stolen any article of value has his hand cut off.

In the matter of injuries a prosecutor is not free to hush up the charge; the penalty is exacted when there is proof of heinous wrong. If a man has committed some offence against the law, he must do penance in a public manner, as a public apology. For the rest, they hold it for certain that they could never enter Paradise did they not pay and perform whatsoever the court has ordered.

For the execution and scourging of malefactors they have no executioner: that office is performed by the dheyvaani, sergeants. As for the penalty of death, though their law ordains it for a homicide, the judges never pass the sentence. (Footnote 1887: Murder is now punished by flogging and banishment to the southern atolls, Bell.)

All the time I was at the Maldives, I never saw one condemned to death by the ordinary judges. They would not dare to do so, but by the express command of the king, which is given but seldom. Moreover, it is a common saying with them, that they could not afford thus to lose their men; and that if all were put to death that merited it, in course of time the islands would be depopulated, and so that the human race in other parts would not suffice to pay the penalty, and that the world would come to an end.

Yet true it is that the king sends some of his chosen soldiers, and condemns, and puts to death such as merit it, or have offended him. For though the processes of justice are in the hands of the doctors of the law, and they are the judges, yet the king is the sole arbiter and dispenser of it; he alone has the power of life and death. Appeal is made to him, and he gives his orders for justice to be done as he wills it, as well to the judges and doctors, as to his lords and officers. And to speak generally, he is absolute throughout his whole realm, and disposes all things according to his pleasure, and that in most tyrannical sort at times, though chiefly in his dealings with the vulgar, a most abject and caitiff herd.

Among other kinds of chastisement, he makes use of one peculiar to the lot of such as have incurred his displeasure, for he causes them to lie upon their bellies on the ground, their four limbs held by four persons; they then receive some stripes upon the back with a rod or kind of cane, which is called rattan, and comes from Bengal: this takes off the skin, and the weals and scars remain ever after to mark such as have displeased the king.

Written legal procedures
I have also observed, as a matter pertaining to the forms of their judicature, that they put not the process or the pleadings in criminal causes into writing, nor the indictments, nor the depositions, nor the judgments: all is very prompt and summary. And it is the same in civil actions, except in suits for hereditaments, or coconut trees (which are immovable property), wherein judgments are delivered by the Fandiyaru or the naibs. In such case they grant writs of possession, sealed with their seal in ink - for I have never seen them use wax for sealing - and these serve for evidence to their posterity, to the end that thenceforth neither he that hath gained the cause, nor his heirs, may be disquieted in their possession.

Footnotes 1887:

The naibs are now only the ecclesiastical and judicial chiefs of the atolls. No doubt, in Pyrard's time, they were superior to the collectors of revenue, 'atolu verin', but the latter are much the bigger men now.

Atoll tax collectors
'Varu', 'tax', and 'veri', 'man'. Mr. Bell thinks that varu may be connected with the Sinhala varuva, a paddy-heap, and may be traced to a time anterior to the separation of the races, when taxes were paid in kind. These collectors are appointed to an atoll, or part of an atoll, by the sultan on the recommendation of the Handeygiri. They do not necessarily reside in their districts. The majority reside at Male', and employ subagents 'rashu verin', island men. The emoluments of the office are considerable, and it is frequently held by relations of the king, and by the ministers themselves. It is held for life or during the sultan's pleasure, and at the decease of an atolhu veri his estate is held liable for any balance due to the treasury.

Debt bonded labour
The custom of debt slavery, evidently of great antiquity, is mentioned by Ibn Batuta, and exists at the present day. Christopher states that the men of Male' become '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.'

Mr. Bell says, 'A curious custom, still surviving, permits an insolvent debtor to work off his debt as his creditor's servant. These bondsmen are called femuseyri.'

In Ceylon, the custom was in full force in Knox's time (1660-79), and lasted until some time after the British occupation. The following account is given in Sir J. d'Oyly's MS., 'Laws and Constitutions of the Kandyan Kingdom', a copy of which is in my possession: 'If the debtor have no property, the chief sometimes delivers him to his creditor, who is thereupon authorised to confine him in his house, and if he cannot obtain satisfaction, to employ him as a servant, or rather as his slave, treating him as such, and supplying him with victuals and clothing' (p. 180). The author proceeds to say that the creditor could also, by leave of the chief, enter upon and cultivate the debtor's field, and that he sometimes (illegally) seized his child. In times of great scarcity people voluntarily became bondslaves, and sold their children (p. 235). In some cases the king paid the debt by way of largess out of the royal treasury, in others it was raised by public subscription (p. 395).

It is in the Eastern Archipelago (Malaysia/Indonesia), however, that the practice obtains most widely and persistently. The best account is that given by Marsden: 'When a debtor is unable to pay what he owes, and has no relation or friends capable of doing it for him; or when the children of a deceased person do not find property enough to discharge the debts of their parent, they are forced to the state called 'mengeering', that is, they become a species of bondslaves to the creditor, who allows them subsistence and clothing, but does not appropriate the produce of their labour, to the diminution of the debt. Their condition is better than that of pure slavery, in this, that the creditor cannot strike them, and they can change their masters, by prevailing upon another person to pay their debt and accept of their labour on the same terms. Of course, they may procure their liberty if they can by any means provide a sum equal to their debt; whereas a slave, though possessing ever so large property, has not the right of purchasing his liberty' (Sumatra, 214; see also pp. 190-2, 335; also Crawfurd, Ind. Arch., iii, 98; Raffles's Java, second edition, i, 394, note).

Debt slavery was found to be in full force, with its attendant abuses, in the Malay states of Perak and Selangor, on the assumption of the British protectorate a few years ago. It has now been abolished by a scheme of compensation from and after the 31st December 1883. See Parliamentary Papers, C. 2410 (1879), C. 3285 and C. 3429 (1882), and C. 4192 (1884). The custom was abolished at Sarawak by Sir James Brooke, but is still in use in the native states of Borneo.

Law prosecution in Maldives
We have here, succinctly stated, the same double modes of prosecution which obtained in English law for many centuries, namely, the prosecution by the king, in which case the charge was called a 'plea of the crown', and the prosecution by the injured party, called an 'appeal'. The intricate technicalities with which the latter procedure was incrusted may be studied in the pages of Bracton, Britton, and Hawkins. As lawyers are aware, this mode of prosecution, after being for long deemed obsolete, was revived by an 'appeal of murder' in the year 1818, with due 'wager of battle', and was only then abolished by statute. The main difference between the English and Maldive appeal was, that in the former the right was primarily confined to the widow, and only passed to the heir when there was no surviving widow.

Christopher (1835) states that flogging is done with 'two or three rattans held together in the hand'. He confirms Pyrard as to the severity with which it is inflicted, adding that 'sometimes death ensues'.

Chopping off limbs for theft
This is the punishment prescribed by the Koran: 'If a man or woman steal, cut off their hands in retribution for that which they have committed: this is an exemplary punishment appointed by God, and God is mighty and wise" (Sura, 5).

Ibn Batuta mentions that this penalty was unknown or unpractised before his arrival at the Maldives, and states that when he, as Kadi, had a thief's hand cut off, the bystanders all fainted! Christopher was shown a stoneblock in Male' on which offenders' hands were chopped off in former days. The real humanity of the islanders had reasserted itself, in defiance of the Koran. Mutilation is unknown and forgotten now.

Penalties and theft
Note in the above passage, 'any article of value', as indicating, perhaps, a similar distinction to that which obtained in English law, between 'grand larceny', where the thing stolen was of the value of one shilling or over, and 'petty larceny', where it was under; our (English) law was the more cruel, the penalty of the former being death, of the latter, whipping.

<Previous   Next>
top of page

Maldives Culture, Powered by Joomla!; free resources by SG web hosting