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Sexuality & Punishment in 17th Century Maldives

Francois Pyrard’s account of his time in the Maldives is a treasure trove of exquisite record of events that paint a colourful portrait of the 17th century Dhivehin, their customs, culture and life serving a king under Islamic law. Presented here are abstracts from one of the more enlightening chapters that shed light on the law of the land regarding adultery and homosexuality.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

23rd June 2011 16:13

Alessia Valenza | ILGA Asia

Francois Pyrard’s account of his time in the Maldives is a treasure trove of exquisite record of events that paint a colourful portrait of the 17th century Dhivehin, their customs, culture and life serving a king under Islamic law. Pyrard was stranded in the Maldives and was kept close to the king in Male’ for 5 years from 1602 to 1607.

Presented here are abstracts from one of the more enlightening chapters that shed light on the law of the land regarding adultery and homosexuality. The text has been annotated (only slightly and within brackets) and sectioned into paragraphs by me to increase readability.

The following account portray a people not that different to today. And certainly not different in terms of how justice was served disproportionately between the two sexes. The humiliation visited upon women and the sleaze of men and corruption of those in authority exists even today.

Traveling Arab jurists and legal scholars (such as Ibn Batuta) had great influence on the practical application of the law and punishment back in those days – dishing out their unique brand of violent misogyny as we shall see here. How this kind of law was totally against the genetically ingrained nature of the Dhivehi is evident. Even today.

Pyrard writes:

I shall now relate divers (diverse) occurrences that happened during my time to particular inhabitants of the island; among others, to a Gentile Canarin of Cochin, a man of great means and position.

For eight whole years he had come and gone about the islands, having everywhere houses, factors, and domestics, speaking the language quite well, and being, in fact, natural- ised.

One day this man was surprised lying with a woman of the islands. He had kept her for six months, and she was but a poor servant-girl. He was presently haled with her before the Grand Pandiare (fandiyaaru), to whom he protested that he had done her no manner of harm; that he desired to become of their faith, and would marry the woman.

This was done, and he became a Mahometan (a Muslim); and it appeared that he had for a long time desired this end, for that he owed much money at Cochin, as to which he became bankrupt. He espoused this woman and made a great lady of her: for there, strangers, both men and women, can wear whatever they please.

When he made the promise he was set free, but upon her judgment was passed according to the law: all her hair was shaved, then she was bathed in old and stinking oil, her head put in an old sack of sail-cloth, and then she was beaten at all the cross-roads and round the island (Male’).

This is their manner of punishing all men and women taken in adultery or fornication. But there, as here, money does everything and saves from everything.

As for the conversion of the man, he was borne in triumph through the streets and round the island, accompanied by the greatest lords, and by the people of all sorts and conditions; he was presented with much money and raiment and a new name: for there, names are given at pleasure and by whomsoever, be it father, mother, kindred, or even the first comer; and also at any time, and not only at birth or circumcision, insomuch that it seemed to me they give names as we do here to dogs and horses: for the name first given by whomsoever is the one that sticks to a man.

The king likewise granted dignities to the new convert, making him purveyor and distributor of all the rice and other provisions and merchandise wherein the king trafficked.”

Pyrard notes that the fandiyaaru that passed the judgment was an Arab who was traveling home from Aceh. The king had persuaded the man to stay and as a result was much loved by the king and respected and greatly feared by the people.

Pyrard continues with a very interesting account:

While this Pandiare was in office I saw him one day do exemplary justice on a large number of women. They were about twenty-five or thirty in number, some of the greatest ladies in the land, who were accused of a crime whereof I never heard tell before; it is practised only at the Maldives, and is called Poiy tallan.

Footnote mentions Poiy as fui – or vagina. Tallan is slang for fuck still in use today. Modern equivalent of the act described by the phrase “poiy tallan“ maybe tribadism (link NSFW) or tribbing.

More accurately the women were convicted of having lesbian sex.

The translator includes some of Pyrard’s original Latin text in the footnotes. I feel the text was not translated to the English for its perceived lewdness by the translator.

I have used Google translator on the text and gathered from the output that the women were accused of using bananas (or “Quela” as Pyrard put it). There is also something about the arm of a 10 year old servant. Perhaps a child was abused by one of the ladies – I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what was being implied although, clearly, Pyrard was not too pleased about all this.

He continues.

In truth, the women of all India are naturally much addicted to every kind of ordinary lewdness; but those of the Maldives in particular are so tainted with this vice that they have no other talk or occupation, and hold it a boast and a virtue one with another to have some bravo or gallant, upon whom they lavish all such favours and tokens of love as a man could wish of a woman.

According to Pyrard’s observation the “hot and amorous” women of Maldives were highly promiscuous, sexually active, openly courting and frequently satisfied each other sexually – much to the chagrin of the husbands. Pyrard tries to find reasons for this behaviour.

He writes:

Many reasons may be assigned for the fact that the women are of a disposition so hot and amorous; but the principal seem to me to be that they are exceedingly lazy, and do nothing but ever lie rocked in daintiness.

Next, that they are continually eating betel, a very heating herb; and in their ordinary fare use so many spices that sometimes I could hardly put the food to my mouth; also garlic, onions, and other such heating things.

Add to this, that the climate is directly under the line, a condition which renders the men more sluggish and less capable; yet for all that, most have two or three wives apiece,-I mean such as can afford to keep them. They are also lazy, idle fellows, more like women, their chiefest exercise being to lie abed with them, and then more often with desire than effect.

I suppose having nothing much to do, chewing foah in addition to the tropical heat leaves the women wanting and the men sluggish and less capable. Have things changed much today?

Pyrard then returns to the flogging of these women. He writes that the trials took place at the palace where the king had ordered the doors closed so that no husbands would beg for his wife’s pardon. The Arab fandiyaaru meted out the punishments.

Pyrard recounts:

The poor wretches all accused one another, and even the men who had personal or hearsay knowledge of it, brought them forward, and named aloud whose wives they were. About thirty of these women were publicly punished; first they had their hair cut,-a mark of great infamy with them; then they were beaten with thick thonged whips of leather, in such wise that two or three died.

Such was the brutality.

It must be noted that in Pyrard’s accounts of the time there is lot of mention of deaths due to executions, murder, disease and starvation. As such I feel Pyrard’s apathetic attitude to death throughout. The brutality of the above event, for instance, is evident to anyone and yet Pyrard could not even care to remember how many died after being flogged.

Pyrard continues briefly touching on homosexuality in Maldivian men and the lax attitude towards it from authority. An old man who served a king as a youth once told me that homosexuality was something that was widely accepted by community then – so much so that young boys were frequently sent to the palace for “royal entertainment”.

In the 17th century, however, Pyrard is disgusted:

The sin of man and man is very common, and though the book of their law prescribes the penalty of death, yet they heed not that; and nowhere in the world are these enormities more common and less punished; wherein may be seen the curse and wrath of God upon these wretches, who are led by the falsity and un- righteousness of their law to fall into the abyss of these horrible vices.

Pyrard was stranded in Maldives during the Renaissance period and Europe was just waking from medieval darkness. Therefore, Pyrard’s view of homosexuality is probably based on highly conservative Christian doctrines prevalent at the time. Perhaps he had a Pompeii style disaster in mind.

It is interesting to note the reversal of these attitudes in modernity, however. Today, as a result of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Pyrard’s Europe has embraced freedom and universal human rights for all and respect for the privacy of the individual whereas we find ourselves only regressing to the dark medieval age of oppression.

Four centuries on, Dhivehin seem to have changed little at the core and an alien system of jurisprudence that was imported some 8 centuries ago has done little to shake off the lazy sexy genes.

Promiscuity still exists as does homosexuality. Bananas have been merely replaced by Fareed’s cucumber. All that has changed is that we have become viciously hypocritical.

[Source: The chapter discussed above from The voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil, v.1]