Few of my blogs have attracted as much interest as those on Maldivia. With great anticipation and no little emotion I returned in January this year,
trying to imagine what those Maldivians who landed on St Helena in 1735 must have made of this place: a fertile valley in the shadow of rather threatening, barren rock, down which cattle were apparently once driven to be slaughtered.
I also went to work in the archives, trying to unlock the mystery of the Maldivians who according to legend created the beautiful gardens named after them. Failing to find any trace of them in registers of births or deaths, and on the verge of giving up, I found in Letters to England 1727-1737 the letter of 31st April 1735 from which the original printed extract compiled by Governor Janisch had come. The letter recorded the arrival of the Drake from Bengal under the command of Captain Pelly, then reported the arrival of the seven Maldivians,
but contained a couple of lines which Janisch had omitted.
Captn Pelly at the distance of 150 Leagues from Land took up a Boat with Ten Blacks in her belonging to of the Maldivee Islands called who were drove out to sea & near perishing having no more Provisions or Water left when he see them than about Ten pounds of Rice & Three Gallons of Water three of the Ten died on board the other Seven Vizt. 5 men one boy & one Woman he hath left here & wee shall keep them at Work for their Living till we hear from Honours how they Shall be sent back to their own Country ..
The subsequent letter of 5th July 1735 complained of a lack of labour on the island:
.. wee have not had any Slaves from the West Coast & you have but forty one Working Blacks of Your own and the few we get of the Inhabitants at the low rate of 9d a day are not sufficient .. we have Weakened Ouselves by frequent Draughts of Blacks Sent to Bencoolen in & since the time of Govr. Johnson ..Then, and surprisingly in view of this, it concluded:
>Wee desire your Honours will give us directions how we shall Send those Blacks to their own Country whom Capt. Pelly miraculously Saved at Sea they belong to the Maldive Islands & are Seven in Number.
In view of the great shortage of labout on the island I assumed that that was the last that would be heard of the matter, and then I came across the letter of 16th April 1736.
The Blacks Capt. Pelly left here desire to return to their native Country & Capt. Crompton carried them to Bencolen wee treated them well & they seem highly pleased with their kind Usage which we hope will be of service to such of our Countrymen who trade among them.
So the Honourable East India Company for once acted in keeping with its name, and the Maldivians were presumably returned to the Maldive Islands. What a story they must have been able to tell when they eventually got there.
In reflecting on this saga I have to say in my defence that as far as I know nobody else has ever suggested that the Maldivians were returned to their own country. One of the leading inhabitants on St Helena who is very knowledgeable about the history of the island told me that his understanding was they had not lived very long after their arrival on St Helena. It also strikes me that we have no documentary evidence that they actually created what came to be known as the Maldivia Gardens (usually spelt in the archives as Maldavia incidentally), but we must assume that the name is proof enough. Quite how much impact seven people would have made in no more than a year is difficult to judge, but I would doubt if you could create a garden in such a short space of time. Anyway the name remains, and those seven have left a permanent imprint on the island.
I am left with strange and very mixed feelings about this whole business. Had Governor Janisch printed the whole extract it is unlikely that I would have ever made some good friends on the Maldive Islands, but neither would I have appeared on television spouting what I can now only describe as utter nonsense! Apologies are definitely in order.