In 1865, German botanist William Hillebrand travelled to India with the intention of finding “East Indian” labour for the sugar plantations of Hawaii, where he lived and worked. Instead, he returned with plants and birds of breath-taking variety: crows, finches, the Chinese quail, Mongolian pheasants, the Indian sparrow and common mynah. By 1879, the mynah was a familiar species in Honolulu and soon in the other south-eastern islands of Hawaii.

For the first South Asians who set foot on the Hawaiian Islands around the early 1880s, the birds must have been a comforting sight. They had sailed over 11,000 km from Calcutta to Honolulu, a stopover that was still thousands of kilometres from their destination of mainland US and Canada, where the west coast offered attractive work opportunities. If nothing else, the soundscape in Hawaii must have been resonant to the travellers of the soundscape from back home.

Thousands of South Asians traversed this route – between mainland US and India, via Hawaii – over the next few decades, but the one among them who played a key role in the foundation of a business empire came in the early 20th century.

Rochirdas Dharamdas, an Indian merchant, was on his way back from San Francisco, when he stopped in Honolulu in 1914 and was swept away. Something about the town, its quiet beautiful streets, horse-drawn carriages and weather charmed Dharamdas and he saw its potential as an entrepot. With his partner Jhamandas Watumull, he opened a store on Honolulu’s Hotel Street that bore both their last names – Dharamdas & Watumull.

Dharamdas & Watumull sold exotic goods sourced from East and South Asia and countries along the Pacific Rim: ivory crafts, brassware, silks from China and Japan, batik prints from Java, and the Spanish shawls that were especially popular in Manila. The store was a success. Its fortunes spurred a wave of expansion that included a landmark department store on Honolulu’s Fort Street. It also laid the foundations for the Watumull family from Hyderabad in Sindh to build an empire that has been involved economically, culturally and philanthropically in Hawaiian life for more than a century. With its investments in real estate – in Hawaii and on the US mainland – its philanthropic work related to cultural and educational institutes, the story of the Watumulls is inextricably linked to the recent history of the Hawaiian Islands.

A clipping from Honolulu Star Bulletin, February 23, 1931.

East India Store

Born in 1895 in Hyderabad in Sindh, Jhamandas Watumull was the oldest of nine siblings. He was 14 when his father, a brick-laying contractor, was left paralysed for life in an accident while overseeing the installation of a part of the town’s water supply system.

Jhamandas’ mother sold her jewellery so her son could book passage on a ship that would take him overseas, first to Sri Lanka and then Manila, where he could engage in trade like some other members of his Sindhi community. Those years were fraught with struggle. Jhamandas, his younger brother Sevakram and business partner Dharamdas strove to make enough profits from the sales of oriental goods in a small Manila store to send back home.

In 1915, Jhamandas sailed for Honolulu to take charge of a new store set up by Dharamdas. This store too offered exotica and unusual artefacts from the East, but this time, the fates intervened. The store became popular with the visitors to the Hawaiian Islands.

Jhamandas was joined by his younger brother Gobindram in 1917. It was a move prompted by the sudden death of Dharamdas from cholera during a visit to India. Gobindram had been a bright student at school, and Jhamandas had financed a two-year technical course for him. The younger Watumull went to work for the local irrigation department in Sindh, and though he made quick progress, he discovered to his chagrin that a fellow worker, an Englishman, in the same position received 20 times his salary. Around this time, as a later story goes, he was also influenced by Abraham Lincoln’s story and his role as the “Great Emancipator” following the American Civil War.

A clipping from Honolulu Star Bulletin, June 2, 1937.

The older brother, Jhamandas, travelled often and did not settle down in Honolulu until 1955, so it was left to Gobindram to expand the family’s business in Hawaii. And he did so with a mix of acumen, perspicacity and grit, growing a fledgling store into a popular, well-established company with diverse interests.

For instance, in 1922, Gobindram invited artist KJ Leilani from Bombay to exhibit his paintings of life in India and to paint portraits of local women. An appreciator of art, he also encouraged his sister-in-law, Elsie Jensen Das, to paint designs on raw silk fabrics. These became popular and soon her designs incorporating quintessential Hawaiian symbols appeared on children’s wear, women’s dresses (muumuus), aloha shirts and linen – all sold at the Watumulls, as the flagship department store was now called.

A clipping from The Honolulu Advertiser, March 24, 1950.

Introducing Aloha Wear

Gobindram’s early decades in the US were eventful in other ways. In 1922, he married Ellen Jensen, an Oregonian who was teaching music in Honolulu at the time. This was a time of ferment in citizenship laws. In 1924, a US court rescinded the citizenship of an Indian Sikh immigrant, Bhagat Singh Thind, in a landmark case that affected Watumull and other Asians who were either naturalized citizens or had applied to become one. When Gobindram got mired in bureaucratic rules, so did Ellen Jensen. The Cable Act of 1922 took away her citizenship on the grounds that she was married to someone ineligible for citizenship.

It was only in the 1930 and 1940s that the couple got relief. In 1931, some provisions of the Cable Act were repealed, thanks to the persistence of groups like the League of Women Voters, giving Ellen Jensen back her citizenship. Gobindram had to wait another 15 years before the passage of the Luce-Celler Act established an immigrant quota, giving him and other Asians citizenship.

Despite these travails, the Watumull empire thrived. As many as 29 stores were added to the flagship East India Store by the 1970s, including the Leilani store in 1941. Its department store on Fort Street became one of Honolulu’s true landmarks and, in short order, began selling “aloha wear”, the catch-all word for men’s aloha shirts, women’s muumuus and tropical prints on clothing. Also available on its shelves were souvenirs for the growing population of tourists visiting in the post-Second World War years, especially from mainland US. The second generation of the family – after Jhamandas’ elder son Gulab moved to Hawaii in 1948 – also invested in real estate. In 1955, Watumulls bought the Royal Hawaiian Manufacturing Company and began producing its own aloha wear.

A clipping from Honolulu Star Bulletin, August 1, 1936.

In 1942, Gobindram became involved in the National Committee for India’s Freedom led by speaker-activists like Syed Hossain and Anup Singh, to lobby for more American support for the Indian freedom struggle and Congress leaders. In the same year, Gobindram and his wife set up Watumull Foundation to promote cultural and artistic relations between US and India. It was through Watumull Foundation that the philosopher and later president of India, S Radhakrishnan lectured in many American cities. The foundation invested in research, awarded travel grants for lecture tours and scholarships, and instituted prizes for scholarly works. Its book prizes went to the likes of Stanley Wolpert for his book on Tilak and Gokhale, Louis Fisher who wrote a biography of Gandhi, Charles Heimsath’s work on Indian nationalism and social reform, among others.

Taking forward Gobindram’s work, Gulab Watumull and his wife Indru set up the Watumull Fund to fund cultural activities in Hawaii and donate extensively to its museums and galleries. Another part of the Watumull family that moved to Mumbai from Pakistan after independence set up hospitals and an engineering college in Thane.

A clipping from The Honolulu Advertiser, October 3, 1971.

Gobindram died in 1959, aged 68. His older brother Jhamandas outlived him and died in 1986, aged 101. On the 100th year of the founding of the first store, the Watumulls released a brochure, documenting its story and management ethos – one that combined philanthropy and foresight. In its obituary on Gobindram’s death, the Honolulu Advertiser quoted an old Reader’s Digest piece to say, “GJ shows that the east and west can meet.”

This is the fifth part in a new triweekly series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the rest of the series here.