The islands of the Maldives are situated at a strategically important location in the Indian Ocean and the trade routes of the past. Stretching from the north to south through the Equator, the location was perfect for ships to refuel while travelling from East to Africa and Arabia and vice-versa. This meant that many old maps included the islands of the Maldives. Some of these were very inaccurate maps while few were detailed. This article will look at three different maps that are relatively detailed and accurate.

Jacques-Nicolas Bellin’s Map of the Maldives -1750

This 18th-century map of the Maldives was drawn by Frenchman Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (1703-1772). He produced this particular map of the Maldives for an influential travel book called L’Histoire Generale des Voyages in 1750. Bellin was the official hydrographer of the French King Louis XV, who was also known as Louis the Beloved. Bellin was renowned for his workmanship and accuracy in his work, and many of his maps were copied by other European mapmakers.

This map also includes the Laccadives Islands in the north of the Maldives. It is unclear whether Bellin regarded them as part of the Maldives or not. The map is fairly accurate in terms of how the atolls are situated, especially those in the South of the country. The shapes of these atolls are far from the real, but their names are very accurate.

This French map names the following 14 atolls as parts of the Maldives from North to South; Atoll de Tilla doumatis (Thiladhummathi), Milla doue Madou (Milladhunmadulu), Padypolo (Faadippolhu), Malos Madou (Maalhosmadulu), Ariatollon (Ari Atoll), Male’ Atoll, Pulodou (Felidhe), Moluque (Mulaku), Nillandous (Nilandhe), d’Adoumatis (Ha’ndhummathi), Souadou (Huvadhu), Addou (Addu) and Pora Moluque (Fuvamulah). It is apparent that not all of the current administrative setting of atolls is described but the names of all the atolls, despite the Frenchness of the wording, is familiar to any Maldivian ear. Some Islands that are named include Malinao in Miladhunmadulu Atoll which may be the island of Miladhoo. Other islands include Pulador (Fulhadhoo) in Ari Atoll and Sonadou (Thinadhoo) in Huvadhu Atoll.

Bellin’s map is unique because unlike many maps of the time, it shows the details of the atolls and the Maldives Islands and atolls themselves rather than the putting the islands as a line of dots in the Indian Ocean.

James Horsburgh’s Map of the Maldives-1814

James Horsburgh was a Scottish hydrographer in the British East India Company (EIC) and mapped many seaways around Singapore and the Indian Ocean in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Horsburgh spent some time shipwrecked in Diego Garcia in May 1786, when his EIC ship Atlas was lost. This disaster influenced him in his decision to produce accurate maps of the Indian Ocean and its atolls. His works collectively are called the India Directory which sailors used to navigate through the Indian Ocean in the early 19th century.


James Horsburgh's map of the Maldives

Horsburgh's map of the Maldives names 15 atolls and a few islands including Todu (Thoddoo) and Gafar (Gaafaru). This map was more precise than the map drawings before the 19th century of the Maldives, including fairly accurate shapes of individual atolls.

Horsburgh's Directory became the standard work for navigation of the Indian Ocean in the first half of the 19th century, until Robert Moresby's survey of the central Indian Ocean. Moresby used James Horsburgh’s works as a guide to his own work and named a separate small atoll south of the South Maalhosmadulu Atoll as the Horsburgh Atoll as a homage to him. Apart from this small atoll in the Maldives named after Horsburgh, there is also an island in Cocos Islands named after him.

Robert Moresby’s Map of the Maldives-1835

This is perhaps the most widely used map of the Maldives in the past century. Many in the Maldives and those who travelled through it relied on the drawings and observations of Commander Robert Moresby to channel through these atolls. Moresby’s surveys of the country to draw the map was the first modern survey map of the Maldives and was used because of its accuracy of the atolls and islands.

Commander Robert Moresby was a British hydrographer and a maritime surveyor with the East India Company. He was in the Maldives from 1834 to 1836 along with fellow officers and draughtsmen of the East India Company and mapped all the atolls and islands of the Maldives. He was assisted by Lieutenants F.J. Powell, Christopher and Young, also affiliated with the East India Company. Moresby had previously worked on the Red Sea, producing maps, before coming to the Maldives. He worked in Diego Garcia after he surveyed the Maldives. Charles Darwin in his 1842 book ‘The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs’ referred to the observations made by Moresby.

Robert Moresby's map of the Maldives

Moresby’s map is extremely detailed and comes in three blown out pages with each island named and drawn highly accurately. The map indicates which islands have ‘good water’ for sailors to dock for supplies and describes their tree lines. It also directs to the best entry channels to enter Male’ Atoll. The map shows 19 atolls including Fuvamulah, which was the correct number of atolls until Ari Atoll was divided into two for administrative purposes under President Maumoon Abdul Qayyoom.

As a tribute to the work Moresby did, the channel between the North Maalhosmadulu Atoll and Fesdhuthere Atoll is named as Moresby Channel in honour of Moresby and all of his hardworking draughtsmen. This channel is sometimes known as Hanikandu locally, but navigational maps still refer to it as ‘The Moresby Channel’.

Moresby’s map was corrected and updated by Professor A. Agassiz, Stanley Gardiner and L.A Maloney in 1902. Before them, in 1866 also corrections and additions were made to the map. This map was widely used by sailors until the 1990s to navigate through the Maldives.

Bellin, Horsburgh and Moresby are not the only people to have drawn maps of the Maldives. There are many like Allain Manesson Mallet who published a map of Maldives and Ceylon in 1683 or Dutchman Peter/Petrus Bertius in 1598. Some others who have also published maps of the Maldives include Pierre Mortier and Van Keulen during the 18th Century when the Dutch had a strong influence in the Maldives. These show that the Maldives and the people of the Maldives interacted with the outer world and the Maldivian waters were important enough to be studied, understood and mapped.

Through history and maps drawn by these men and others, we see that the name of atolls in the Maldives has largely remained similar or the same. However, it is very unfortunate and saddening that most of the Maldivian youth today are oblivious to these names. Replacing the atoll names with Thaana letters is not the same as knowing the name of the atoll that has been used for centuries by locals and foreigners alike. We as Maldivians should put more effort in teaching and learning the geography and history of our country. Learning about why one’s atoll and one's island was given a certain name and the stories behind them. It is important to keep addressing the atolls in the names that our forefathers gave them so that generations after us will know the atolls by the names it was always called. After all these names are part of our identity as people belonging to a nation of atolls.