Maldives, Or Malediva Islands, a chain of small coral islands in the Indian ocean, about 450 m. W. of Cevlon, extending in a straight line from lat. 76'N. to 0° 40'S., between Ion. 72 48' and 733 48' E. The length of the chain is about 550 in., and its breadth about 50 m. The number of islands is commonly stated by the natives at 12,000, but is supposed to he in reality nearly 50,000. Their aggregate area is about 2,600 sq. m. The great majority of them are mere rocks or sand hanks, and only the larger islands are inhabited. They are divided into 17 atolls or circular groups, each atoll being enclosed by a coral reef, generally about 90 in. in circumference. These fs have channels through them navigable by the boats of the native; and though the sea heats with great violence on the outside, the water within the reefs is calm and generally shallow. There are deep channels between the atolls, four of which have been examined by European vessels and found navigable by the largest ships. The principal island is Male, in lat. 4 10 N, lon. 73 40' E. It is 7 m. in circumference, and contains 2,000 inhabitants.
It is the residence of the sovereign, who bears the title of sultan of the Twelve Thousand Isles, and who acknowledges some degree of dependence on the British government of Ceylon, to which he annually sends an embassy with tribute, and receives presents in return. The population of the whole cluster is estimated at 200,000. The highest land in the islands is only 20 ft. above the sea. Each island is circular in form, and has a lagoon in the centre. The soil is sandy, and at the depth of 3 ft. a layer of sandstone is found. The inhabited islands are richly wooded with palms fig trees, citron trees, and breadfruit trees. riu-y produce abundance of millet, ami of a similar -mall grain called brinby, of both which the inhabitants reap two harvests in the year.
They also gather various roots, which, with rice imported from Hindostan, ami fish and cocoanuts, constitute their food. The climate is excessively hot, though the nights are cool and the earth is refreshed by heavy dews.
The islands are unhealthy for Europeans'.
From April to October is the rainy season, daring which the westerly winds are boisterous In the dry season, from October to April, the winds are easterly. The islands breed prodigious numbers of wild ducks, pigeons, and other wild fowl, which are much used for food, and sold very cheap. There are no large quadrupeds except a few sheep and cows. Cats, polecats, and ferrets are found, and rats are very numerous and troublesome. There is a poisonous species of water snake, and the mosquitoes are said to be larger and fiercer than in any other part of the East Indies. - The Maldivians are strict Mohammedans. They are handsome, well made, and generally of an olive complexion, though some have much fairer complexions than others, which is probably attributable to their descent from Persian or Arab stock, while the majority of the population are obviously of Hindoo origin. The people are ingenious and industrious, and have attained to some degree of civilization. They clothe themselves in silk or cotton robes, and are cleanly in their habits, both sexes bathing regularly once a day. The men shave their heads, but allow their beards to grow. The women allow the hair to grow long, and fasten it up behind.
They are not kept secluded as in other Mohammedan countries, but enjoy a tolerable degree of liberty. The Koran is the supreme law, but there are various peculiar local laws and usages. An insolvent debtor becomes the servant of the creditor until the debt is worked out. The ordinary punishment for criminals is whipping, which is sometimes inflicted so severely as to produce death. Frequently criminals are punished by banishment to the southern islands. The people learn to read and write Arabic as well as their own native language, and they have schools in which the mathematics and navigation are taught. Polygamy to the extent of three wives is tolerated, and divorce is restricted only by the necessity of paying back the dowry received with the wife. The people are a quiet and pacific race, kind and hospitable to strangers, though distrustful of foreigners. They are friendly toward each other, and the ties of kindred are cherished with much affection. The internal commerce of the islands is considerable, for each atoll has its peculiar branch of industry; in one the brewers reside, in another the goldsmiths; locksmiths, mat makers, potters, turners, and joiners, each inhabit exclusively their respective atolls.
This division of labor gives rise to a constant intercourse and interchange of commodities, carried on by means of boats, which are sometimes absent for a year from their own islands. Every family, even the poorest, has a boat, and the rich keep several. The multitude of rocks and reefs is so great that this navigation is extremely difficult, and much property is lost by accidents at sea; but the natives being universally good swimmers, their lives are seldom endangered by these shipwrecks. There is some trade with the continent of India, carried on by native boats of about 30 tons burden, built of cocoanut trees. With these boats they make voyages to Calcutta, Ceylon, Sumatra, the Malabar coast, and other distant parts, carrying cocoanuts, coir, mats, cocoanut oil, tortoise shell, dried fish, and cowries, or small shells, which pass as coin over all India. In return they bring home gold and silver, rice, tobacco, cotton and silk goods, and European articles. - The Maldives have been seldom visited by Europeans. The Portuguese touched at Male in the 16th century.
In the beginning of the 17th a French merchant vessel was wrecked upon them, and one of the survivors, Pyrard de Laval, remained there nearly five years, and wrote an account of the islands, which was published in Paris in 1679.