Out in the midst of the Indian Ocean, southeast of
the southeast Indian coast, lie the nearly 1200 small islands of the Republic
of the Maldives. Some of these are of volcanic origin, while others
are coral atolls resting atop seamounts. They are all "new" land,
having emerged from the deeps within the last 100,000 years. The
climate is mild, and though the islands are poor today, the location between
Africa, Arabia, and India has in the past been conducive of profitable
trade, and through a fluke of commercial taste, one of its local products,
a certain kind of seashell, became widely used as currency for several
The archaeological record begins around 1500 BCE. There is a legend of an Aryan prince from India, Koimala by name, who came to the islands with his metal weapons, light skin color, (and horses?), and so impressed the short, dark, stone-age natives (the Dravidians, or Dhivis), that they made him their king. Archaeology and anthropology date the Aryan influx to around 500 BC, about the same time they began to show up in Ceylon, 400 odd miles to the east.
The Maldives were firmly within the Indian cultural orbit during the Buddhist period, c. 300 BCE-500 CE, and the remains of a religious-administrative center of that faith exist on Laamy Atoll.
Written records date from the 10th century CE, when Middle-eastern traders began to show up on the Maldivian shores. They found a number of valuable commodities in great profusion, most notably pearls and cowrie shells (the author of the Maldives web site calls them "cownes"). The former were expensive jewels, but the latter were money, pure and simple, and you just went out to the lagoons and got them. Or, actually, by the 10th century the cowrie harvest was a royal monopoly, and the foreigners had to deal with the administration in order to get their hands on the little shells. The Maldivian rajas were wealthy and powerful in their own domain.
Arabs and Persians got along well with the Dhivis. Trading stations became permanent settlements. The traders married the local women, and in accordance with Islamic imperative the kids were raised Muslim. In 1153 the king was converted, and of course all his subjects automatically converted with him. The islands have been Muslim ever since.
Their remoteness from the mainland helped preserve Maldivian independence, and the pearl and cowrie harvests provided a continuous income. The islands remained peaceful and prosperous until the 15th century, when piracy became a problem. In the late 16th century, a new group of brigands, the Portuguese, invaded and occupied the main islands, but they only managed to maintain their garrison for 15 years before it was wiped out by the local hero Muhammad Thakurufaan.
Muhammad's dynasty endured until the early 18th century, when an invasion by the raja of Cannanore, in southern India, drove the sultan into exile. Cannanore could not maintain order, and the foreigners were quickly expelled by one Hasan Izzaddeen, whose dynasty endured into the current century.
18th century Maldivian foreign policy relied on a diplomatic alliance with Ceylon, at that time under Dutch influence. When the Dutch were supplanted by the British the Maldives went along.
The British never paid much attention to the Maldives. With the demise of the cowrie as a currency in the 19th century the islands' utility in the Indian Ocean economy dropped more or less to zero, and they descended into the poverty that characterizes them today. A formal protectorate was declared in 1887, but the effects on the ground were practically nil. The government of the sultans remained in effect.
The Maldives web site explains that the traditional government of the sultanate was elective and consultative rather than absolute, and that although the exclusive ruling prerogatives of the dynasty were maintained, hereditary succession from father to son was the exception rather than the rule. In the 20th century the first of ten constitutions was promulgated. An abortive republic was in effect in 1953-4. The current governing authority, inaugurated in 1968, also has a republican form.
First came the cowries. These little shells were in use as currency from most ancient times until the 20th century. Prime areas of circulation were the Indian Ocean coastal regions from East Africa through Arabia, Persia, India, Southeast Asia, and China. Cowries have been found at various archaeological sites in northern Eurasia and both American continents as well. They really got around, and the Maldives were one of the major suppliers.
Two cowrie species made up the bulk of the circulation: Cypraea annulis with the nice, smooth, ovoid shape, and C. moneta, with shoulders. Moneta is the Maldivian species, but it is basically impossible to pin down the origin, spatial or temporal, of a particular cowrie you might happen to find in the context of the numismatic market (i.e. purchased from a dealer).
Then there are the larins. These are pieces of silver wire bent double and stamped with dies. Period of issue is more or less 16-18th centuries, and known issuers were the governments of the Ottoman Turks, the Safavid Shahs of Iran, the sultans of Bijapur in India, (probably) private individuals in Ceylon, and the Maldives (?). Some of the dies were borrowed from regular coin issues, while others were special long-and-thin larin dies. Either way, they are very hard to read. In the SCWC there is a photo of a lovely larin under "Bijapur." The centering is perfect and it's really easy to read. Most larins are off center to the point that usually you can't make out anything.
It is well known that larins were the silver currency of the Maldives, and one would expect that the well organized Islamic administration of the islands would have issued its own currency, since that is what Islamic governments have always been in the habit of doing. There are isolated listings of Maldives larins, including in the SCWC, and Mitchiner, in his "Oriental Coins and their Values," lists some pieces as being "probably" of Maldivian provenance. The SCWC citation is presented without illustration, instead of which is a reference to an article in an old Journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society. I am fortunate to have been a member of the ONS for more than a decade. That article turns out to be a translation of a contemporary account that mentions the manufacture of larins on the islands. The account also speaks of iron currency in India, examples of which I have never seen. No actual coin is illustrated.
There's another wrinkle. Turns out the identifying epithet of the Maldives sultans, "Monarch of the lands and overlord of the seas," was also used by Ottomans, whom we know issued larins because they are found with the Turkish sultan's names. As far as I know we have yet to come up with a larin bearing a Maldivian sultan's name. I'd like, therefore, to suggest that Maldives KM1 be described as "unconfirmed" rather than "rare."
Standard round coins began to be produced in the mid-17th century. At first these were of good silver, and matched the weight of the wire larins along side of which they circulated. Halves were added after a few decades. These early, fine silver coins are rare.
Debasement began in the 18th century, along with the double denomination. The coins became cruder and thicker, but also much more common. All the territory of the Maldives adds up to less than the area of Washington, D.C., and the population is currently at its high point of about 200,000. I've never met anyone who has been there. Yet several 18th century Maldivian coins have crossed my path over the years. Not bags of them, but dozens. And they have such affordable prices! I cannot explain this. All Maldivian coins should be rare, but they're not. What is common, however, is date-off-flan. Most unfortunate.
By the end of the 18th century debasement had proceeded all the way to copper, at which point the weight began to drop. Copper coins in various denominations were issued through the 19th century, and pieces, usually the little fractions, show up in general dealer's inventory, even in junk boxes. Being inscribed entirely in Arabic, a lot of dealers will just ignore them.
Die work began to show a drastic improvement in the 20th century, and the final issues of the native series dated 1331 (1913) were struck in Birmingham according to the usual high standards of that mint. These are common coins, the usual grade is extremely fine or better, and red uncirculated is not difficult, a result of the liquidation of the Heaton mint leftovers not too long ago. SCWC mentions gold and silver proofs, but I've never seen such exotica.
With the eclipse of the native issues, the Ceylon rupee became the coin of the realm. Local decimalized currency was introduced after World War II, first paper in 1947, followed by coins in 1960. In the new scheme the old larin became the "cent" to the rufiyaa, or rupee. This is a stand-alone currency, related to that of neither India nor Ceylon.
The modern circulating coinage is available to collectors. 1960 and 1970 dates are generally more common than later issues, though I've found the 1984 1 laari in "poundage." The tough coin in the circulating series is the current 50 laari, whose turtle motif appeals to the collectors of "coin critters." I've seen both the 1960 and the 1979 proof sets.
The modern governors of the currency have seen fit to issue a series of collector coins in copper-nickel, silver, and gold. The earlier ones are more common than the later ones, most common of all being the 1979 FAO silver coin. Generally speaking, they are nicely done, and they have not been offered to us in overwhelming variety. I doubt that even 1% reside on the islands themselves, they are simply a method of earning some foreign exchange. Can't blame them either, since there's no call these days for the product that brought fame and wealth in the past: the cowrie that used to grease the wheels of commerce across a third of the world.
I have no information regarding tokens. Has anyone seen any?