In the wake of the spread of COVID-19 in the Maldives, several people braced themselves for economic collapse, and many referenced times of great difficulty and trouble from history. The Great Famine was one such time.
The Great Famine of the early 20th century is a chapter of history that is often mentioned, but not widely understood in the public consciousness. The reasons for the Famine are also obscured from the public eye; either due to the general fog of history, the deliberate lies of omission of historians.
The traditional narrative has it that the Great Famine was an unavoidable after-effect of the Second World War. However, a closer look at history paints a different picture.
The Second World War had ended. The Maldives had been a British Protectorate; free enough to govern its own domestic affairs, but to a limit. The country had elected Abdul Majid Rannabandeyri Kilegefaanu to the throne, much to the disapproval of the colonial British government in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka).
Abdul Majid, the sultan-elect, was resident in Egypt. In his stead, the state was governed by Mohamed Ameen Didi of Athireege.
Ceylon also happened to be the closest trading partner with the Maldives at the time. In 1948, Ceylon was enjoying a post-war boom.
According to the historian Ibrahim Hussain Manik, even prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans: the markets of Ceylon were flush with goods and luxuries from across the world.
The Asian Development Bank confirms this in a report they published about Sri Lanka’s economy. After Sri Lanka secured its independence from Great Britain in 1948, the report pointed out that it had all the ingredients to develop at a quick pace; such as a “strategic position” in the Indian Ocean.
In 1950, Sri Lanka’s rapid development had made it one of the most developed nations in Asia. Based on GDP per capita and other metrics, Sri Lanka would rank higher than Thailand and Korea of the time.
However, a Great Famine was underway in the Maldives. Clothing, fabrics, and food were in extremely short supply. The historian Ahmed Shakir writes that there had been reports of people in the North and the South of the country dying of starvation.
Some had been driven by hunger to eat the roots of the ubiquitous magoo plants that grow by the sea. Some peoples’ clothes had worn out and were unable to cover their nakedness, and had to remain in their homes to keep their dignity.
Manik writes that 12 people in Hoarafushi starved to death. There was nothing to shroud the dead with except the sails of beached boats. Others made use of burlap sacks to cover their nakedness.
Both Ceylon and the Maldives were in such different states at the same point in history. There are some historians who therefore argue that the Great Famine was not a natural after-effect of World War 2, but rather due to a failure of the Maldivian government at the time. Critics of this perspective claim that this is propaganda targeted at the Mohamed Ameen Didi.
Decrying Ameen’s profligacy, the statesman and writer, Ibrahim Shihab wrote about the wastefulness of the Maldivian state.
“The depth of the pit of debt into which our nation has fallen, and the heights of wealth wasted on needless things, are matters which require no further detail”, he wrote. “No sane person would be blind to the extreme expenditure both in Malé and abroad. The numbers will shock you... reducing the costs should be of the utmost priority. The benefit of such reductions would be reflected in the country’s foodstuffs and textiles”.
The shameful tradition of the State’s wasteful spending can be traced back to that of the sultan-elect Abdul Majeed Rannabandeyrikilegefaanu. Under the pretext of educating his son, he migrated to Egypt. All of his expenses were to be covered by the State. For the 8 years he spent in Egypt, the State had spent a total of MVR 2.4 million (not adjusted for inflation), an extremely heavy burden to bear by a poor country.
His son, Hassan Fareed, likewise acted in ways that damaged the State’s financial capacity, writes Manik.
Fareed traveled with MVR 4.8 million to Ceylon on a state visit to purchase rice. Manik writes that Fareed instead purchased a home with a garden in Kandy.
On Fareed’s death, the property was inherited by his father who sold it off and purchased a three-story building in Colombo. He named it “Fareedee Building”. The rent from the property was to be distributed to Sheikh Ali Didi, Ibrahim Fareed, and Mohamed Fareed.
The government was not idle in the years of the Great Famine, writes Shakir. Staple food supplies were sent to many islands, and officials were sent to island communities to teach them how to cultivate edible crops. Mohamed Ameen Didi himself traveled to some islands. He founded the Maldives Government Bodu Store, which purchased food supplies from abroad to be sent to the different island communities, and also purchased fish from local fishermen at high prices.
However, the government’s wasteful spending practices did not change.
Even during those days of Famine, Manik writes that Ameen Didi had held a lavish ceremony (a “bodu darubaru”), with foreign dignitaries in attendance. An eyewitness to the ceremony, Abdullah Mufeed writes: “they gathered between the two gates where the Islamic Centre is today. The ceremony-house was built such that anyone outside could see within”.
Abdul Majeed Rannabandeyrikilegefaanu was there, and so were the British Governor General of Ceylon and his wife, and so were the British High Commissioner and his wife.
Manik also writes that other festivities and contests had been spent on by the government at the time.
Notoriously, Ameen Didi had used state funds to construct various homes for several women with whom he was acquainted.
Sosunge on Sosun Magu was built for Aminath Hussain. Orchidmaage was built for Fathimath Didi. Billoorijehige, where the current Ministry of Gender now stands, was built for Fathimath Abdul Wahhab.
Ameen Didi provided lodging for some of his female companions in two houses (Fehige, and Cozy Corner) in Colombo, as well. The rent for both houses was paid for by the State, at the rate of MVR 50,000 a month (not adjusted for inflation).
Having once become enamored with a young woman from Hathifushi, Ameen Didi once sent her mother a gift which he had taken from the state coffers. A 45kg sack of sugar.
Ameen Didi was deposed from his presidency after a mob rose up against him. He sustained severe injuries, and he died in exile in Vihamanafushi.
After his death, the scale of State expenses became clearer. Not a month after his death, the Maldivian government’s agent in Ceylon, P. B. Unbuchi Company, demanded repayment on a MVR 5.6 million debt. In addition, the State had owed MVR 4.2 million to prominent Bohra merchant companies that had been operating in the Maldives at the time. How did the State incur such debts?
Ameen’s Republic died in 1953. Modern-day sympathizers with Ameen Didi claim that the population at large could not tolerate his anti-tobacco laws, and lynched him because of it. However, Ibrahim Shihab wrote that the fact that people’s standard of living declined to such a level that had rarely been experienced in the past had been the most significant factor behind the end of the Republic.
The old monarchy was re-established, and Ibrahim Nasir took the helm as Prime Minister. Large quantities of “rice, flour, and sugar” were imported, and Manik writes that this “alleviated the people’s hunger”.
Not all historians agree that the Great Famine was primarily caused by government mismanagement. Ahmed Shakir believes that Maldivians, who had failed to practice personal responsibility in difficult times, themselves are to blame. However, given the government’s profligacy and the fact that Ceylon was experiencing a post-war boom, and also the fact that the Famine began to decline in severity after a change in government: Shakir’s views do not seem to hold much ground.