Archaeological finds reveal that the islands were inhabited as early as 1500 BCE. The first settlers arrived around 500 BCE and are thought to have been Aryans. In the pre-Islamic period (before CE 1153), according to the accounts of Persian and Arab travellers, the Maldives was ruled by women. After that date, only four queens ruled, the last one in the early 16th century.
Contact with Arab travellers paved the way for the Maldives to adopt the religion of Islam, which gradually replaced Buddhism. In 1153–54, King Dovemi Kalaminja officially accepted Islam.
Although the Maldives voluntarily accepted a period of British protection, the country has been an independent state throughout its known history, except for a very brief period (15 years) of Portuguese occupation in the 16th century and an even briefer three months and 20 days of Mopla (south Indian) rule in the mid- 18th century. The Maldivian militia (controlled by the Sultan) defended the country and its independence against incursions by stronger powers. Since the country’s conversion to Islam, its history can be traced through a number of dynasties, ruled by 93 Sultans and Sultanas, whose laws were only acknowledged when exercised for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, the ruler, who was advised by councillors, could be dethroned.
The period of the British protectorate began in 1887. The Sultan remained head of state. There was no British Governor or representative and Britain did not interfere in the country’s internal affairs, confining its interest to foreign affairs and defence. The Maldivian sultanate became elective after 1932.
The country briefly became a republic in 1953–54, but was again a sultanate at the time it terminated the arrangement with the UK in 1965. Following a public referendum in April 1968, the sultanate was abolished and the Maldives was again declared a republic. Ibrahim Nasir, who had been Prime Minister since 1954, then became President.
The recent history of Maldives has been characterised by stability, growth and gradual adjustment to a modern economy. The only interruption to this steady progress was an attempted coup in late 1988, involving an attempted invasion. This was quickly put down with the aid of Indian troops. In the early 1990s, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom devolved some presidential powers, introduced other reforms and established an anti-corruption board.
In the presidential election in October 1993 Gayoom, who had been President since 1978, was re-elected. He won 28 of the 48 votes in the Majlis and went on to win 93 per cent of the popular vote in the subsequent referendum.
The country is isolated and low-lying and much concerned about the threat of rising sea level. It was as a result of an initiative by Gayoom that the Commonwealth first started to focus on the impact of climate change on low-lying countries.
Gayoom was re-elected for a fifth term in the presidential election in October 1998. From a field of six candidates he was unanimously elected by the Majlis and was then endorsed by 90 per cent of the popular vote in the referendum that followed. The 40 elective seats of the Majlis were contested in the general election in November 1999 by individual candidates (there being no political parties in Maldives at the time).