Arab sailors were probably trading to the Maldives from the 9th century, but it is a little hazy. Five centuries later things are clearer when ibn Battuta writes,
“The inhabitants of these islands buy crockery, on being imported to them, in exchange for fowls so that a pot sells in their country for five or six fowls. The vessels take from these islands the fish which has been mentioned before, coconuts, waist-wrappers, wilyan and turbans made of cotton. And people take from there copper vessels which are abundant with the Maldivians as well as cowries and qanbar, that is the fibrous covering (coir) of the coconut.”
In 1405 the Chinese dispatched a large expedition to the Maldives, with whom they’d had trade relations for some while. The Mao K’un map gives sailing directions from Malé to Mogadishu.
A little later ibn Majid’s list of destinations and distances seems to refer to know islands along the eastern side of the Maldives chain.
A lot of what I have read concerning the early history of the Maldives and its links with the world concerns the string of atolls on the west side, running from Maamakunudhoo Atoll, route of the ancient sailors where many ships run aground on their way to Bengal (including the Persia Merchant shipwrecked in August 1658 carrying chests of silver, and probably gold from West Africa – truly the stuff of legends) to North and South Nilandhoo atolls, where archaeological sites are reported on several islands – including some mysterious mounds and a fine mosque at the capital island. Also along that 400-km long stretch are the various islands of North Maalhossmadulu (also known as Raa), including Fainu and Hulhudhuffaru where trading ships moored. Kinolhas is where Ibn Battuta first stopped. Maalhossmadulu’s claim to fame was boatbuilding and it was known for its strong currents since the lagoon sea floor is some 20 metres shallower than at other atolls, according to my Lonely Planet diving guide.
Indeed the waters around the Maldives are treacherous. The currents were strong and continuous. Some traveled huge distances. “If the current carries [sailors] to the west, they are borne straight to the Arabian coast… but most often they are dead before they get there”, wrote François Pyrard who was shipwrecked in the Maldives in the early seventeenth century.