Male’, Maldives 1885 – C. W. Rosset with original photos

by / Thursday, 24 April 2014 / Published in History

Carl Rosset in Male’, Maldives 1885 – original photos and lithographs
Text and graphics by Carl Wilhelm Rosset
from The Graphic 16 October 1886, and Illustrierte Zeitung 23 April 1887

young maldivian man, male maldives 1885, photo by c. w. rosset

Young Maldivian man in Male’
Photo: C. W. Rosset, 1885

Carl Wilhelm Rosset was a doctor and explorer, born in Freiburg, Wurttemberg, Germany in 1851, who took photographs and collected artefacts and specimens while staying in Male’ from 29 October until 21 December 1885.

Most of Rosset’s photos were probably destroyed in Berlin in 1945 at the end of World War II.

The article below is Rosset’s full English account of his visit published by The Graphic in 1886, plus coloured additions from a shorter but more frank and revealing German language article by Rosset in Illustrierte Zeitung in 1887translated here by the Swedish Maldivian history researcher Lars Vilgon.

Rosset’s acquisitions, collected with the help of the leading minister Atireege Ibrahim Didi (Abrahim Deedee in the article), formed the major part of displays of Maldivian products, manufactures and cultural items at exhibitions in London, Berlin and Chicago.

Rosset also published articles about Maldives with the Zoological Society of London and the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

The preparations for my visit to these islands were commenced in the spring of 1884, as it had been my intention to proceed thither in October of that year; but a combination of accidents prevented my departure from Colombo at the appointed time, and I had therefore to wait 12 months for another opportunity.

This delay was unavoidable owing to the fact that the high sea which prevails around the islands during the southwest monsoon (i.e. from June to September) makes landing there a rather dangerous matter, especially if one is cumbered with boxes of instruments and stores. It was necessary for me to arrive there soon after the setting in of the end of the north-east monsoon about the middle of October, so as to have as long a spell of fine weather as possible.

Seeing that the Maldives were a dependency of the government of Ceylon before that colony passed into the hands of the English in 1796, it cannot but be a matter of some surprise that the information possessed concerning them should be of such meagre description.

The Maldivians have long been known as a peaceful and hospitable race, though shy and suspicious with strangers until they have satisfied themselves of the latter’s friendly intentions: they are not too conservative to oppose the adoption of new ideas if these are properly introduced: nor are they deficient in commercial aptitude.

One cause of the islands having been so much neglected is undoubtedly to be found in the bad reputation acquired by the climate: and another is probably a certain reluctance on the part of the Ceylon government to meddle, or appear to meddle, with the affairs of the Maldivians.

I am not by any means the first European who has paid a visit to the Maldives; but I can justly claim to be the first who has undertaken a systematic exploration of the group, and who for that purpose has taken up abode his abode among and associated with the people.

By the courtesy of the English government I had been given a passage in the steamer Ceylon, the vessel in which Captain Wilding makes his periodical visits to the lighthouses of Minicoy [just north of Maldives in the Laccadives] and the Basses [Great Basses Reef, located around eight miles off the southeast coast of Sri Lanka]. It was arranged that, as she was to proceed to Bombay to have some repairs effected, I should be left on the way at Male’, and that she should return and fetch me away in two months’ time.

At length, on the morning of the 25th October, 1885, the Ceylon steamed out of Colombo harbour and shaped her course for Male’, the capital of the Maldive group, situated on the island of the same name, at the southern end of North Male’ atoll, exactly in the centre of the group.

Posed Maldivian family photo by C. W. Rosset 1885

Maldivian family portrait
Photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

We sighted land about 9 am on the morning of the 29th, being then between four and five miles distant; but there were no landmarks to indicate which of the twelve thousand islands which constitute the Maldive group was then before us, and as we approached we kept a look-out for any craft the crew of which could assist us. Soon a number of fishing boats could be seen approaching and the engines were stopped to enable us to get a pilot on board, from whom we learned that we had shaped our course correctly, and had arrived directly opposite to the island of Male’.

In Illustrierte Zeitung, Rosset claims the Ceylon met the Maldivian boats much further out at sea:
‘When we were about 20 English miles from its shores, we met the natives in their fishing boats, and they showed us how to find the best way to pass into the Male’ atoll. This way took us through the Vadoo Kandu canal…’

The panorama, which was now spread out before us, was beautiful in the extreme. The low shore, marked by the thin white line of the beach, was covered to the height of about seven feet with a thick growth of jungle, above which waved the graceful heads of thousands of coconut trees, to which the slight breeze then blowing imparted a scarcely perceptible motion.

As I leant over the bulwarks, admiring the scene, I suddenly became aware of a painfully pestilential odour, which at once dissipated the romantic thoughts, which the beauty of the scene had conjured up. This was the much dreaded fever-laden breath of the lagoons, the cause of the deadly Maldive fever.

This stench is due to a peculiarity in the atolls, or clusters of islands and reefs which constitute the Maldive group. Most atolls are formed of a circle of islands, connected by reefs, which enclose a large tract of water, or lagoon, with depths varying from 10 to 40 fathoms, forming good anchoring places for ships which can enter through passages in the barrier reefs.

Most of the islands are small, varying from a hundred yards to a mile in length and breadth, and are seldom more than six feet above the level of the sea. In many cases the islands form part of a ring of coral rock without any opening, the consequence being that when the sea is calm, the enclosed water becomes rapidly putrid under the action of sun’s rays, and emits the odours to which I have referred. Indeed, many of the islands are quite uninhabitable, owing to the coral ring having grown to a height sufficient to exclude any but the highest waves; others, again, are only unhealthy during the hot season, the outside sea being able to beat over the barrier during the time that the south-west monsoon is blowing, and thus to constantly renew the water within.

I discovered afterwards that the lagoons which emitted the odours did not affect the town, or island of Male’, and that, with a few exceptions, the danger was very much smaller in October and November – that is, just after the north-east monsoon had set in – than in March and April.

flag of Maldives until 1903

Maldives flag in 1885
Rosset mistook this as the flag of the Ottoman Empire, according to Maldivian historian Majid Abdul-Wahhab.

When we had arrived within five hundred yards of the shore, the Turkish flag, which floated from the flagstaff in the northern corner of the old Portuguese fort, was lowered in salute. The Ceylon returning the compliment by dipping her ensign three times.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘The town of the sultan is protected by an old and useless fort, that is armed with many worn out and rusty old guns.’

The anchor was dropped shortly afterwards, at about 250 yards from the beach, as foreign vessels are not allowed to enter the harbour of Male’ without having first obtained the sultan’s permission.

The sight of the steamer had by this time attracted crowds to the beach, and it seemed as if the entire population of Male’ had turned out. About half-an-hour after the anchor had been dropped a large canoe could be seen issuing from the harbour; it was propelled by 40 rowers, and was soon alongside.

It conveyed the messengers from the sultan, who were sent to inquire what business had brought us there, and I at once handed them the letters of introduction with which I had been furnished in Ceylon before my departure, at the same time expressing my wish to be conducted as soon as possible to the prime minister, E. A. Abrahim Deedee, to whom I had been specially recommended. One of the messengers, named Ibrahim Deedee (who, I was glad to discover, was able to speak a little English) told me that if I returned with them to the shore my request could be immediately complied with, and I accordingly entered the canoe with them.

The passage through the surf in these boats is at times a matter of danger. They are built of a length quite out of proportion to their breadth, which makes them very unseaworthy, and to add to the discomforts of the passenger he is obliged to stand up in the stern, as no seats are provided for his accommodation, so that unless he keeps a very sharp look-out he runs considerable risk of being shot overboard when the stern is lifted by a wave, in which case no power on earth could save him unless he happened to be a very expert swimmer.

The boatmen themselves, being as much at home in the water as on land, are naturally indifferent to the danger; in fact, they are well used to being ducked, as at certain times of the year they are almost certain to be capsized during the passage. However, on this occasion the surf was moderate, although sufficiently alarming for a novice, and I was assured that there was not the slightest risk of an upset.

As I stepped ashore the vizier came forward, and taking me by the hand, led me away at once through the principal streets of the town. Close behind us walked my two Singalese servants, dressed in a gala costume of red satin, whilst a crowd of inquisitive Maldivians brought up the rear, forming a procession of quite respectable length.

wood carvers at work in Male, Maldives in 1885, photo by C. W. Rosset

Wood carvers, Male’, Maldives 1885
Photo by C. W. Rosset

We soon arrived before the entrance of a large compound surrounded by a high wall, in the centre of which stood a small building, which I afterwards discovered to be the Kacheri (answering to the Town Hall of a European town), which I was invited to enter. The entrance, destitute of any door, was very low, and it was necessary to stoop nearly double in order to penetrate to the interior, which was so dark as to make it impossible to distinguish anything for several minutes after leaving the fierce glare without.

A seat was offered me, and accepted, and four individuals, whose dress bespoke them as persons of rank, took their places, two on either hand. Not a word had yet been spoken since I landed, and the silence continued unbroken for several minutes after we were seated. I tried to make out what my companions were like, but the semi-obscurity of the apartment rendered their features very indistinct; so far as I could make out they appeared to have regular features, and that tranquil expression usually found in orientals. No two of them seemed to be of the same colour; one was quite fair, the second darker, while the third and fourth had complexions which approached a mahogany tint.

The silence at length began to get irksome, and I therefore inquired of the messenger whether I should soon be able to speak with the prime minister. He replied that his excellency was then seated on my right. I at once addressed myself to him, and, after naming different gentlemen in Ceylon who had sent complimentary messages to him, made my request for an audience of the sultan, adding a few words touching the object of my visit.

He inquired whether I had any letters for his majesty the ‘sultan and king’, to which I replied in the negative. I had been advised in Ceylon not to take letters for the sultan, who can neither read nor write, and with whom it is advisable to have as little direct intercourse as possible, he being very averse to Europeans.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘Later I found out that this negligence of his person made the sultan very sour.’

In requesting the interview with the sultan, I further asked for permission to make a lengthened stay in the islands, and to be allowed to build houses, collect specimens, and travel from one island to the other through the group.

The minister departed to carry my requests to the sultan, and returned in about half an hour. He informed me that the sultan would be unable to reply to my request for an audience for eight or ten days; that he could not give me any answer touching my wish to travel about the group; but that instructions had meantime been given for houses to be placed at my disposal, and for any provisions I might require to be supplied.

This was exactly the answer I had expected, and I was about to express my thanks and withdraw, when Abrahim Deedee informed me that if I desired it I could have the use of a house and compound belonging to him, which, being on the shore of the harbour, would be much more convenient than one in the centre of the town.

I gladly accepted this kind offer, and after thanking him took my leave, as I wanted to return on board and get my boxes (of which I had 45) ashore before night. The natives gave every assistance, and the work was accomplished in good time, and I was able to return on board before sundown, leaving my two servants to arrange the house which had been set apart for my use.

The next morning I bade ‘good-bye’ to my friends captain Wilding and the officers of the Ceylon, and went ashore in the native boat which had been sent off for me. A stiff breeze had sprung up during the night, and the high sea then running made the short passage to the beach very trying, whilst the rain which was pouring down added to the discomfort; so that I was very glad when the beach was at length gained in safety, in time for a last look at the Ceylon, which was steaming off in the direction of Minicoy.

Male’ (or Sultan’s island) is situated at the south-eastern corner of North Male’ atoll, and is the seat of government of the group. It is about a mile in length by three-quarters in breadth, and, like most of the other islands, is in no place more than from six to seven feet above the sea level.

The harbour has been formed from a part of the lagoon enclosed by a barrier reef which nearly surrounds the island, and on which a kind of the sea wall about four feet high has been built with rough blocks of coral. The harbour thus formed affords very efficient protection to the Maldivian trading boats (daturu odi) and fishing boats (mas odi): but the entrance is too narrow for vessels of more than 200 tons to enter.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘Concerning the climate of Maldives, it is not so good, particularly on Male’ atoll. Almost all Europeans who, by different shipwrecks, have landed on these islands, have died there from fever (Malaria). During my stay in the islands, up to 60% of the natives were sick with fever, of course due to the unhealthy season. (The N. E. monsoon is the best weather.)

Due to always maintaining a good diet, and my experiences from nine years of travelling in Africa, India, Arabia and similar places, I have always managed to stay healthy, even though I have been in daily contact with sick persons.’

The town of Male’ struck me as being more regularly laid out and cleaner than is generally the case in Eastern countries. The streets are straight, broad, and shaded with trees, and are kept very clean.

The houses are mostly built of plaited coconut leaves plastered over with a stiff mud, and roofed with coconut leaf thatch; they are usually divided into two apartments, communicating by a doorway closed by a curtain. The front apartment is the general and sleeping room, and is furnished with benches round the wall and a few stools beside the bed, which is always the most conspicuous article of furniture in a Maldive house. This bed is suspended from the roof by chains or rope, the material of which depends upon the caste to which the proprietor belongs; high castes using brass chains, middle castes iron chains, and low castes coir ropes. Legs are also provided in order that the bed may be lowered down in case of illness, when the swinging motion to which it is liable would be a source of danger or annoyance to the patient.

The furniture of the bed is a matter of great importance; high castes use a mattress and pillows of red silk; middle castes are content with cotton stuff; while low castes sleep on straw. The mattress or straw is covered with a mat, the pattern and quality of which are regulated by the caste of the owner. The Maldivians display great skill and taste in the manufacture of these mats, which have acquired reputation for harmonious design and permanency of colour. They are made only in Suvadiva atoll from a grass called by the Maldivians hau; only three colours are used – black, dark yellow, and white, which are obtained from plants and are wonderfully lasting. A good idea of the ordinary appearance of a high caste bed can be got from the illustration representing the reception room of a high caste.

Although the Maldivians keep their houses scrupulously clean, they are very unhealthy on account of being surrounded by a wall from six to seven feet in height, which impede the free passage of fresh air, this being all the more hurtful as the openings which serve the purpose of doors and windows are not very large. The bad effects of this arrangement are apparent in cases of illness, when the patient as often as not dies as much from want of fresh air as any other cause.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘Male’ has about 800 single storey houses. The house I lived in, the one that the minister had supplied me with, was one of the few with an upper floor. In this house I used the lower rooms as a store. The house is 10 metres high, the bottom level is 3 metres, the upper level is 4 metres, and the roof is 3 metres.

The house stands on six to ten coconut palm logs around 40 cm. thick. The external walls are covered with 20 cm. wide wooden planks made of magu dandi, and it is also used as flooring board. For the roof covering and the second floor, they use a more delicate wood called dumbury.

The ceiling and the external walls of the ordinary houses are covered with water-proof coconut palm leaf mats, fangandu. The door entrance has no enclosure. An opening, about one square metre, on the second floor serves as a window, with a sliding curtain/mat made of coconut palm leaves.

The houses are in gardens and these are fenced in. The interior of the houses is divided into two parts, one for the men and the other for the women and children. Both are equipped with suspension beds. The women’s part of the room also has a swing, called aendu.’

The inner compartment of the house is reserved for the women, who remain there when not engaged in household or other duties, or when male visitors are in the house. They are not, however, secluded with the same strictness as is observed in other Mohammedan countries; on several occasions when I was visiting at some of the lower caste houses the women of the household would join in the conversation, though always remaining invisible in their apartment.

The remains of the fort erected by the Portuguese during one of the temporary occupations of the islands probably in the 16th century would seem to indicate that they looked upon the Maldive islands as a position of considerable importance. In my view of Male’ harbour it will be seen that the main bastion is a structure of great strength; the walls of solid masonry are upwards of 20 feet in height and in a good state of preservation, though much overgrown with weeds and grass.

Many of the old cannon are lying about within the fort; but are, of course, quite useless, being rusty, and choked with coral. A mast from a ship wrecked some 200 years back is raised in a corner of the bastion and serves as a flag-staff. Scattered about the town are upwards of 200 old cannon, all as unserviceable as those in the fort.

verandah of sultan's palace, Male, Maldives 1885 - lithograph of photo by C. W. Rosset

Lithograph of photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

The sultan’s palace is situated to the north-east of the main bastion, in the centre of a large walled enclosure; before the gateway are placed about half a dozen old cannon, the only ones capable of being used, with which salutes are fired on great occasions. The palace itself is a large building with an upper floor. Visitors are received in the verandah which I was able to photograph.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘The sultan’s residence is walled in by high stonework, and at its corners and its entrance gateway, European iron lanterns are standing, which give light by burning coconut oil during the dark nights. Inside the stone walls are:
1. The palace built in European style;
2. One big tent without sidecovers, where there is room for the sultan’s 150-200 dancers and musicians to perform their show;
3. The sultan’s private house, also in the European style, built with a nice verandah, and containing expensive European furniture.

On this verandah I saw the instruments of the sultan’s musicians, I even found many a name of various Dutchmen and Portuguese. In the private room of the sultan there are one door and four windows with red silk curtains. The windows are well-fitted with iron bars. Behind these curtains the beautiful heads of different women, with big black eyes and lustrous necklaces peeped out, and red, gold, and silver embroidered satin walls came in sight. The head of the sultan was usually in the door-opening. The women of the superior caste are the most beautiful.’

François Pyrard de Laval, a French adventurer who visited these islands during his travels in the east early in the 17th century, and was detained here for five years from 1602 to 1607, gives a long and minute account of the palace, according to which it contained many fine halls tastefully decorated; but during my stay I was unable to penetrate within, and cannot therefore either confirm or amend his description.

Within the palace enclosure are several buildings used as stores, and an arena in which the dances and sports take place, on one side of which is a kind of raised covered platform for the accommodation of the ladies of the court and some of the hired functionaries.

There are several mosques in Male’, two of them larger than the others; but they offered no peculiarity either of structure or ornament which would entitle them to special notice.

Male’ being the centre of the government and trade of the whole group, is naturally the most thickly populated, and as the Maldivians not only invariably bury people where they die, but are also very careful not to inter two in the same place, some idea can be formed of the number of graves to be seen there. This has been advanced as a reason for the unhealthiness of Male’, and I think that the water drawn from the wells must inevitably be contaminated.

graveyard in Male, Maldives 1885, photo by C. W. Rosset

A graveyard in Male’, Maldives
Photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

The Maldivians differ somewhat from other Mohammedan peoples in their manner of burial; the mourners as a rule follow the corpse in silence and, except involuntarily, do not give audible expression to their grief. Six of the near relations of the deceased act as chief mourners, and bear the body wrapped in white linen on a bier of candou-wood (M. kadu) to the place of interment, where it is received by the priests, who chant a sort of monotonous dirge during the ceremony.

On the way to the burial place, two or three of the relatives of the deceased sprinkle the processionists with perfumed water, and also distribute rice and cowries to the poor. The grave is generally about four feet deep, and when the body has been laid in it, with the face turned towards Mohammed’s tomb, it is filled up with clean white sand, and perfumed water sprinkled over it. A stone is erected over the grave, varying in shape and size according to the sex and caste of the deceased, and a wooden fence is also generally added to prevent anyone from walking over the grave, which is considered a great sacrilege by the Maldivians.

'Grave of a high caste person in Male', Maldives 1885, photo by C. W. Rosset

‘Grave of a high caste in Male’
Photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

No period of mourning is observed, except that the near relatives come on the three following Fridays to pray at the grave. The priests receive as a fee the cotton cloth in which the body is wrapped, and pieces of money according to the rank and wealth of the deceased. Pyrard says that when a ‘great lord’ dies the priests sing over the grave for one year; in the case of a sultan dying, the ceremony is continued until the death of his successor.

The ordinary dress of the men is very simple, consisting of drawers, a cloth bound round the loins, after the mode of the Singalese, and a handkerchief twisted round the head. On special days, such as Fridays, when they attend the mosque, the high caste wear a shirt and jacket, over which is a kind of long dressing down, coming down and nearly to the feet. The turban is only worn by priests and the sultan.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘Most of the time the Maldive men walk around half naked, and only when ordered by the sultan at celebrations do they change into their Arab dresses with their caste designations. The main food intake for the superior people is birds, the poorer mostly eat fish, and to be a fisherman in the Maldives is a fine labour. Vegetables are brought from abroad. All food is cooked with curry. The only fruits available are coconuts and bananas. Lemons, melons and oranges are only to be seen in the sultan’s garden.’

young Maldivian woman on swing in Male, 1885 - photo by C. W. Rosset

Maldivian girl on swing in Male’
Photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

The women’s costume is exceedingly becoming. Round the waist, and reaching down to the ankles, is worn a cloth (mostly of native manufacture), coarse in texture, of a dark chocolate colour, with a border of parallel black and white stripes. Over this they wear a kind of loose shirt, or gown, of silk, with short sleeves, reaching nearly to the knees, which is not made to fit to the neck and shoulders, but is gathered in round them; the openings for the neck and arms are ornamented with embroidery in gold, silver, and silk thread.

The hair, which is black, and generally long and thick, is tied up behind, and a handkerchief of the same colour as the shirt is bound round it. All ranks wear a similar costume, the distinctions of caste being marked by the difference in the quality of the silk stuff of which the shirt is made, and of the embroidery.

lower caste people in Male Maldives in 1885, lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset 1885

People in Male’ 1885
Lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset

The Maldivians are very quiet and reserved in their intercourse with foreigners until their confidence has been gained, when they show themselves hospitable to a degree. They have few wants, and as they possess the means of easily satisfying them, are inclined to be indolent; sober, honest, and cheerful, they compare favourably with the inhabitants of many other Eastern countries.

They are very ingenious and expert in their manufactures, and display great aptitude in the imitation of any European articles they may come across, such as knife handles, scales, and other small articles of daily use amongst us.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘The inhabitants of Maldives are a mixture of different races. Arabs, who are the first and main population, Singalese from Ceylon, and Malabars from India. The language is related to Arabic and Singalese. The powerful and rich people understand Arabic. The whole population numbers 150,000 persons.

Only the prime minister and his two nephews Ibrahim Didi and Ali Didi speak fluent English. The Maldive people are by religion Mohammedans, and the sultan is very devoted. Strangely enough, they also believe in a Devil, whom they blame for all disasters.

The sultan is a young man of some three and twenty years of age, strongly built, and with a well-proportioned figure. His complexion is fair, and his regular features are well set off by a jet black beard, worn short, as is the custom among Maldivian high castes. He is of a very full habit of body, and the life he leads is such as to preclude any possibility of his life being a long one.

His rule is absolute; and although he has ministers whose advice he seeks on any occasion of importance, he seldom if ever profits by their wisdom, and often takes the course directly opposite to their views.

He is very adverse to any intercourse with foreigners, especially Europeans, whom he either refuses to see at all or keeps waiting, perhaps, for weeks before granting an interview. At the time of my visit, this cautiousness had been very much increased by the recent arrival of news from Zanzibar, giving details of the doings of the Germans in that part, and he consequently fancied that my visit had some ulterior and political design which he could only frustrate by detaining me in Male’ until the Ceylon arrived to take me away again. Fortunately for me, his ministers were not so prejudiced as their master, and gladly gave me all the assistance they dared in face of the restrictions put upon them by the sultan.

It is fortunate for this monarch that he has had to deal with the English for the last century, also that his dominions are a little out of the direct march of civilisation. But the time cannot be far off when his only choice will lie between submission to the Europeans or practical effacement.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘It was very difficult for me to meet the sultan. In an audience, I did not succeed in getting any permission from him to go and visit other Maldive islands. He took me for being a German agent, who was sent here to work among his people for a German annexation. I met the sultan only twice.

He is a big stout person who suffers from adiposty [obesity], has a light brown face colour and a black short full beard. He is about 22 or 23 years old, but a stranger would judge him ten years older. He calls himself ‘the sultan of 13 atolls and 12,000 islands’, and his country has English protection. He has a great power over his subjects and demands to be addressed ‘his royal highness’. Without his permission they were not allowed to have anything to do with strangers, and neither to buy or sell anything to them.

The sultan was in possession of several valuable artifacts, like spears, swords, shields, and musical instruments, but it was impossible for me to get hold of any of these. Not counting all the other gifts, I offered the sultan an excellent shooting gun with leather cover in exchange. But he did not enter into the bargain. Instead he wanted to buy my gun. I have noticed that if you want some items from the Maldivians, it is not advisable to offer them any money. Thereby you appear in their eyes as some businessman or trader and will be treated as such a person. Moreover, the sultan has no manners at all, has never been in contact with Europeans, and is not able to read the Holy Koran.’

Although not so strict as formerly, caste distinctions are rigidly adhered to. The sultan naturally occupies the highest rank, after him come his near relations, who have the sole right of assuming the title of Mannipul orManifulloo; the next in rank are the descendants of former sultans, who have a right to assume the name and rank of Didi, or Deedee.

When the sultan appoints a minister, or wishes to show any particular favour, he bestows a title, which has generally attached to it the ownership of certain islands, which become either the life property of the favoured person, or else are held by him during the sultan’s pleasure. The present ministers, with their titles and in order of rank, are: Manifulloo, title Fatina Kilage-fanu, Treasurer: he is a near relative of the sultan, to whom he is next in rank; but he has very little influence over the monarch, hardly more than other high castes.

Hassan (left) and Ibrahim Didi, chief minister of Maldives 1885, lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset

Hassan Deedee (left) and Abrahim Deedee, prime minister of Maldives
Lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

E.A. Abrahim Deedee, title Dorimaina Kilage-fanu, prime minister:
Abrahim Deedee is undoubtedly the most enlightened of all the sultan’s subjects. To him is entrusted the management of the trade of the Maldives, which already shows signs of development in spite of the restrictions with which the sultan hampers it.

He is a great friend of the English and spent some years in Ceylon, acting as Turkish consul in Galle, an office now filled by his son. It is to him that I owe the success of my first visit. I always found him ready to give me every assistance and information in his power.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘[Because of the sultan’s illiteracy and inexperience with Europeans] he is forced to hand over all official government decisions to his prime minister A. Ebrahim Didi, or the MaldivianDorimaina Kilegefanu, the only Maldivian who has had European education from schools in India and Ceylon.

He speaks seven different languages, is intelligent, stable and very loveable person. He has copied the English system and introduced an organisation for taxation of imports and exports. The sultan does not like this new system, and most of all he would like to dispose of his minister, but he is not able to govern the land without him.’

The minister helped me in my efforts to collect Maldive ethnographical material. Without the sultan’s permission he sent out sailing boats to other islands, in order to get information and artefacts for me. Besides this, the sultan supported his subjects to give me four-footed animals and lizards, as he enjoyed seeing them prepared in glass bowls.

I was also given permission to make photographic pictures, and the sultan showed that he was pleased to see the photos I had made. I gave him a picture of myself, but he hesitated when I wanted to have a photo of himself. He showed an interest in my European civil uniform as he had never seen anything like it.’

Hassan Deedee, title Famu Dairi Kilage-fanu:
Hassan Deedee is a cousin of E.A. Abrahim Deedee, and has the command of the army; his principal duty being to superintend the fencing and dancing games which are held periodically by order of the sultan. One interesting fact in connection with him is that he is the only Maldivian man who is allowed to wear the old Maldive costume, in which he was dressed when I took his photograph. This costume nearly resembles that worn by the women of the present day.

A. Mohamedu Deedee, title Rana Badari Kilage-fanu

Next in rank to the ministers are the viziers, or Mouscouly, who have charge of the divisions, or wards, into which Male’ is divided (called Avari), of which there are four. There are other titles bestowed by the sultan which are merely social distinctions, and many of which can be obtained by payment of a few rupees.

The trade of the Maldives must all pass through in Male’ and is mostly carried on on the principle of barter. The bazaar in Male’ is the only one which exists in the group, and it is here that all the foreign trade is carried on. The shops are the personal property of the sultan, who lets them out to a number of Bombay merchants, at rents varying from 15 rupees to 50 rupees per month. These Bombay merchants mostly sell rice and cotton goods to the natives, taking in exchange tortoise-shell, coconuts, cowries, and dried fish.

A man’s caste is dependent on that of his mother, whose station is not affected by marriage. I was not able to find out how many castes are in existence; but believe that the number is about seven or eight. The high castes include the first three, and have the sole right of furnishing soldiers and dancers of the sultan; the lowest castes are the toddy-drawers (M. Ra-veri). When two people of different castes meet, the lower caste makes way for the higher caste; in company the lower caste remains standing until invited to be seated by his superior, and waits till the latter has finished his meal before commencing to eat.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘The nobility and rich people of Male’ came every day to visit me in my house, they observed me curiously in my scientific occupations, and listened with great interest to me when I told them about Europe. Specifically they wanted to hear about Germany and the German warships’ activity at Zanzibar. They had already been informed about this by merchants from Zanzibar. They showed the greatest respect for the German presence. They paid much reverence to the German Kaiser and his Kansler Bismarck.’ 

Tuttu Siddi Lebbe, a Mohammedan priest, and his son, lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset 1885

Tuttu Siddi Lebbe, a Mohammedan priest, and his son
Lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

The Maldivians are Mohammedans, and it is generally supposed that their conversion to the faith of the Prophet took place some seven hundred years back. Although particular in observing the fast and ceremonies of the religion, they are not so particular as to the manner in which this is done. Their mosques are well built and kept very clean; and there are several in Male’, but one is mostly used for ordinary festivals and prayer, and is called the Friday Mosque (M. Hukuru Miskitu).

Superstitions exercise a great influence on the daily life of the Maldivians, much more than religion. They are principally afraid of the Devil, who is supposed to exercise great power, and whom they make responsible for all mishaps which befall them; they go out at night very unwillingly, for fear of meeting him. Should illness visit a house, it is supposed that the inmates have offended his satanic majesty in some way, and prayers are addressed to him, begging him to cease the supposed punishment; in extreme cases these prayers are written on a piece of cotton stuff stretched on a small wooden frame, which is exposed before the house.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘The Maldive people are friendly and hospitable. They helped me when I was disembarking and moving my luggage ashore, and they helped me in my collecting activities. The young people gladly gave help using a roll-call system. The Maldive people are anxiously curious, the first days of my stay they besieged my house, and in the streets hundreds of them followed me. When I was called to some house, they wanted medical help, to get quinine, opium pills, castor seed oil and other medicines for the sick. Sometimes it was just out of curiosity that they asked me to come in.’ 

The Maldivians do not marry very early; I believe the usual age for men is between 18 and 20. Polygamy is allowed, according to the Mohammedan law, the number of a wives being limited to four. The ceremony is extremely simple: the man having satisfied the parents of his intended bride of his ability to support her, the pair attend before the magistrate of their island, and signify their mutual wish to be joined in matrimony. The magistrate thereupon declares them to be man and wife, calling upon those assembled to be witnesses. It will readily be understood that a bond so lightly tied can be as easily severed; should a couple not agree, they attend again before the magistrate, who, after satisfying himself that both parties desire the separation, declares the marriage annulled.

The amusements are very few; indeed the islanders are of too indolent and taciturn a disposition to enter with spirit into any pastime. Fishing is their favourite exercise, and is indulged in to nearly the same degree as hunting and shooting in England. They are fond of kite-flying; but this pastime is only permitted at certain periods of the year.

For indoor games they have chess and a species of ‘fox and geese’ played with nine cowrie shells on a board marked out into regular spaces.

On special occasions organised sports are held, which are generally witnessed by the sultan and his wives. At these sports the young men generally engage, two at a time, in a kind of fencing exercise with sticks; which is, however, entirely without interest. The two principal games or dances are the Malikutara and the Todu.

malikutarra dance in maldives, originally from minicoy, lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset 1885

Malikutarra drumming dance
Lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

The first came from Minicoy (hence its name), and is performed by about 20 tom-tom beaters, who go through a series of slow movements, accompanying their gestures by a regular thumping of their instruments.

Lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

The second game is of pure Maldive origin; it originated in Ari atoll, and is performed by about six couples of fencers, armed with wands some six feet long, to the ends of which are fixed metal boxes filled with cowries, resembling the children’s rattles in Europe. With these they go through a series of movements, timed to the regular beat of tom-toms, and by striking the wands against one another, make a continuous rattling noise.

sultan's musicians in Maldives 1885, lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset

Lithograph from photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

The private band of the sultan is not without interest. It plays before the sultan on special occasions, and sometimes in public. The instruments date from the time of the Portuguese or Dutch. I heard a performance, but cannot say I was able to make much of the music; it reminded me at times of some airs which I have heard in Arabia. The leader had a large open book before him, which I asked to be allowed to see, thinking it would afford me some information on the subject; but it only contained a few Arabic characters, not bearing in any way upon the subject of music.

Young Maldivian woman wearing traditional 19th century dress with bangles, photo by C. W. Rosset 1885

Young Maldivian woman wearing traditional late 19th century dress with bangles
Photo by C. W. Rosset, 1885

The Maldive women are very fond of ornaments, and all wear quantities of rings, brooches, earrings, necklaces, and bangles, which are made either of gold, silver, or brass according to the caste of the wearer. In former times all the jewellers were inhabitants of Nilandu atoll, and travelled from island to island throughout the group, remaining on each as lang as employment offered; they are now, however, permanently established on most of the principal islands. The laws regulating what ornaments the women should use were much more strict formerly than now; at the present day a women may wear what she can afford to buy, whatever her caste may be. The embroidery work produced by the women is remarkable for neat workmanship and tasteful arrangement of the colours used.

As in all Eastern countries, all household duties are left to the women, who also have to prepare and cook their husbands’ food. They are not allowed to eat with their husbands; but must first wait upon him until his meal has finished, when they retire to their own apartment for their repast. As rule they are decidedly handsome, and many of them have complexions nearly as fair as the women of southern Europe.

They are better treated than in other Mohammedan countries, having a great deal of liberty. They never veil their faces, and the only restriction to which they are subjected is that they are not allowed out at night, which is not any great hardship for them, as the fear of meeting the devil is already a sufficient inducement for them to remain at home.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘The 29th of November (Friday), the sultan gave me permission, after my asking, to take photos of the musicians and the dancers. This permission gave me access to his private apartment, and thereby he and especially his wives could have a closer look at me.

The Maldive women seemed very shy, when I was called in to their different homes, to give them medical help. In the beginning I had to stand in front of the house’s room curtain, that separated the men’s and women’s space for each other, when I was to examine the woman. At once there were six to ten hands sticking out from the drapery, when I wanted to find out the heart-pulse. Whoever the arm belonged to I did not know, as I never saw the women behind the curtain.

After some time, the women became more open and associable, as they got acquainted to my information and approaches, and I was able to examine them properly.’

Crime is very rare on the islands, and the punishment inflicted would generally be considered mild in Europe. Death is never inflicted, the severest penalty being banishment to an uninhabited island for a period commensurate with the offence committed. The commonest punishment is castigation, the blows being dealt on the back and thighs with a sheet of leather inserted into a handle.

During my stay a man and woman who had killed their new-born child – the commonest crime in the Maldives – were sentenced to castigation and banishment for life. The woman was the first to receive punishment, and I had an opportunity of witnessing the infliction. 

She was conducted through the principal streets of the town securely bound with strong cords, which were firmly held by two men on either side. Her face was smeared with black and white paint, and a coconut leaf fixed to her back stood up about six feet above her head. Tom-tom beaters marched 20 paces ahead of the procession, and called upon the people to come out and witness the punishment. At about every 200 yards a halt was made, and a strongly built Maldivian administered between 30 and 40 blows with the leather instrument described above. This was repeated until the whole town had been traversed.

Next day came the man’s turn, and then both were banished to separate islands for the rest of their days.

The punishment here described was inflicted with the plain leather, which I should say was not capable of inflicting much pain; but I was informed that when the punishment is intended to be very severe iron nails are inserted in the leather, which cruelly lacerate the flesh; this must be of very rare occurrence, however.

I was unable to go further than the island of Male’ on this visit, as the sultan (who suspected I had some ulterior political design in visiting his country) refused to allow me to proceed further. When he ultimately gave his consent it was too late, as the Ceylon was then due to take me back to Colombo, and as I had arranged to exhibit my collection at the Colonial and Indian exhibition, further delay was impossible. I intend, however, to revisit the Maldives before the close of the year, to complete the explorations begun in Male’.

Illustrierte Zeitung: ‘The information I was able to get about the other Maldive islands from the natives, I do not consider reliable. I plan to go back to the Maldives this year, and then visit the other islands. The sultan is hopefully not going to make any obstructions. His minister was informed by the captain of the steamer, which came on the 21st of December to take me back to Ceylon, that my journey to the Maldive islands was entirely done for scientific reasons.’

C. W. R.

N.B.: In this connection the Laccadive Islands may be mentioned. They lie to the north of the Maldive group, and may be regarded as a continuation of the same island system. The Laccadives lie chiefly between lat. 10 deg. and 12 deg. N., and long. 72 deg. and 74 deg. E., about 75 miles from the Malabar coast.

There are 19 principal islands, but the largest (Anderov) is not more than six square miles in extent. Most of them are surrounded by rocks and coral reefs: the water near them, however, is deep, and they are separated by several wide channels, frequented by ships passing from India to Persia and Arabia.

They are inhabited by a race of Mohammedans called Moplays. They do not yield grain, but produce an infinite quantity of coconuts, from the husks of which coir cables are made by the inhabitants. These islands are well supplied with fish, and export the small shells called cowries, which pass as coin all over India.

Jaghery, a little betel-nut, plaintains, a few eggs and poultry, and coral for conversion into lime are their remaining exports, but they are of little importance. The Laccadive islands were discovered by Vasco de Gama in 1498: they were dependent on Cannanore till ceded by Tippoo in 1792, when they came into British possession with the rest of that sovereign’s dominions.

Comments on Rosset’s 1885 visit by Maldivian royal family historian Majid Abdul-Wahhab:
King Ibrahim Nooreddine Iskander, unlike the rest of his family and extended family, was reputed to be extremely dark in complexion. Rosset visited the Maldives during his first reign (1882-86).

Until his second reign (1888-92), the Islamic mullahs prevented the Maldive kings from giving audiences to Europeans. They were afraid of the kings being persuaded to accept Christianity, as one did in the 16th century.

Visiting Europeans who requested audiences were always made to meet a commoner dressed as the king. Rosset described him as fair in complexion indicating that he had been shown someone else.

Ibrahim Nooreddine Iskander was my great-grandfather’s younger brother. The king was young, educated and very progressive in his ideas. This was all the more reason for the mullahs to keep control over him.

His daughter the Princess Don Goma wrote a book over many decades that was not flattering in its descriptions of the schemes of those who wielded control in the Maldives. The manuscript of Don Goma’s book, which was never allowed to be published, was seized from her grandchildren in the 1980s and destroyed by the government.

Following political upheaval in Male’ in 1887, Athireegey Ibrahim Didi Dorhimeyna Kilegefan (whom Rosset calls E.A. Abrahim Deedee) was dismissed as prime minister. A serious arson campaign including burning down houses and business premises of government and ordinary citizens ensued. The ex-prime minister was implicated and charged.

Subsequently he was freed, following intervention by the British authorities in Colombo. 

Athireegey Ibrahim Didi regained power more than once and kept it after 1903. He died in 1925 following a stroke.

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