A Tamil sailor (and pirate?) in Gold Rush San Francisco

The story of Samuel Variapa, the “Hindoo centenarian of North Beach”

Old hand-drawn illustration of an old gray-haired Indian man, wearing a coat, seated with a smile

If South Asians are included in California history textbooks, their stories typically begin in 1965, or sometimes with Punjabi immigrants of the 1900s. While older stories exist, it’s rare to find actual names and details. That’s why I was so thrilled to discover a two-part 1893 San Francisco Examiner profile about Samuel Variapa, a Tamil-speaking sailor in 19th-century San Francisco.

The 1893 profile describes the elderly Variapa as a centenarian, having dark copper or bronze skin, a slight mustache and beard framing his face, and being totally blind. He lived in a shanty at Franklin and Filbert, near Fort Mason.

While the old man’s memory was fading, it was sharp enough to recall chunks of a life lived across continents and oceans, a mosaic of historical epochs — from the British Raj to the Mexican era of California, from the high seas of privateering to the lanes of North Beach.

His linguistic tapestry was as complex as his history. He apparently spoke “several of the Hindoo dialects, particularly Tamil,” and spoke of events in Karnataka and Maharashtra, including the Siege of Srirangapatna in 1799, and the Battle of Assaye in 1803. While he spoke English “very imperfectly,” he was quite fluent in Spanish, having reportedly arrived before the Gold Rush, while San Francisco was still Mexican territory. “As to such modern affairs as Governor Alvarado and the conquest of California,” the writer marvels, “he talks of them as things of yesterday.”

While Variapa was quiet about his backstory, we get more details from his neighbor, blacksmith Luis Navarro, who says the story told about him was that he had worked for some time as a cook on board a man-of-war ship associated with the East India Company, and arrived in California sometime like 1843 as a deserter.

His arrival marked the beginning of a new chapter. While the details are fuzzy, Navarro suggests that after deserting his ship, he may have hoped to work in early mines, before his life took a turn towards the mundane yet vital work of washing and ironing for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. This shift from the adrenaline-fueled life of a sailor to the quiet diligence of laundry work epitomized the diverse experiences of immigrants in the burgeoning city.

Most intriguingly, Luis Navarro said that it was suspected that Samuel had perhaps “seen a little of privateering, not to say piracy.” Privateering was essentially a kind of state-sponsored piracy — attacking other ships, taking prisoners, and sending money back to your sponsor, under a pseudo-legal framework. Even while describing rumors of his friend being potentially a kind of model minority ex-pirate, Navarro adds that “Of course, everything went in those days, but I have not the least doubt that Variapa had a very interesting life-story to tell before ever he came to this country if he chose to tell it.” It’s unclear if the rumor is true, but it gives us a sense of the colorful stories and mysterious pasts of many residents of nineteenth century San Francisco.

While his early history is filled with speculation and guesswork, the 1893 newspaper profile is filled with precise detail about Variapa’s life. He lived in a modest shanty in North Beach, on lane leading to Fort Mason, lined with shanties that once stood as fashionable residences during the frenzy of 1849. Also in the home was an Englishman married to Catarina Rodriquez Witman, a Mexican-Californian who owned the house. Variapa retained strength and steadiness despite his age, “going out every day to lug home a backload of firewood,” and shaving daily, despite being blind.

Variapa’s reported arrival date and reported age certainly deserve scrutiny. Writing in 1893, the Examiner writer expresses initial surprise at his age, but quotes Navarro, “a very intelligent man,” and also talks of local residents who were boys in 1849, but could remember Samuel Variapa as a middle-aged man even then.

From the vantage of 2020s California, it’s remarkable to have this level of detail about a South Asian immigrant in mid-nineteenth century San Francisco, even if some of the early details are shrouded. The details, and particularly the illustration, help bring him and the story of his community alive.

A realistic photograph-style image of an old Indian man, bearded and dark-skinned, looking at the viewer
Potential recreation of Samuel Variapa, inspired by the original 1893 illustration

The original two-part profile of Samuel Variapa is full of lovely details, from the English housemate to whom Variapa never speaks, to the “forty or fifty Kanakas and Hindoos resident in the Franklin-Filbert section adjoining Washerwoman’s bay in the fifties.”

Article 1: “Hindoo and a Hundred” (September 5, 1893)

The first of the articles, from The San Francisco Examiner, September 5 1893, page 4, column 3:

Image of an old newspaper article. Transcription in the article below.


Samuel Variapa Remembers the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799.
Still Strong and Vigorous, Though Blind — He Has Been a Resident of San
Francisco for Nearly Fifty Years.

There is a certain halo of suspicion surrounding stories of centenarians outside of Mission Indians, whose longevity is proverbial. San Francisco has, however, one resident whose claims to be a hundred years old are well founded, because there are local residents who were boys in 1849, but can remember Samuel Variapa as a middled-aged man then.

Variapa lives in a shanty in a little lane leading from Filbert and Franklin streets away to Fort Mason. The lane is closed at the eastern end, so that the place-is in the nature of a blind alley or cul de sac.

Variapa fixes his age by certain recollections of the old East India Company, for he is a Hindoo, and can remember the siege of Seringapatam in 1799 and the battle of Assye in 1803. As to such modern affairs as Governor Alvarado and the conquest of California, he talks of them as things of yesterday.

The old man’s skin is of the darkest copper or bronze hue, and his head is quite bald. He wears a slight mustache and beard, both snow white, and such is his steadiness of hand that he shaves himself daily, though he is absolutely bilnd (sic).

The ideal stage representations of Uncle Tom give a good idea of old Variapa, only that he is of a small, slight figure, and his color is distinctly bronze or red. The high cheekbones and small nostrils are distinctly of the Malay rather than the Ethiopian type. The probability is that Variapa is a half-caste Hindoo — of mixed Malay and Caucasian origin. He speaks Spanish perfectly, having acquired it from the Mexican residents of North Beach in the early days.

Variapa is provided for by the charity of Mrs. Catarina Rodriquez Witman, a native Californian who married an Englishman, and who left Variapa in peaceful possession of an old shanty which in 1849 was her own favored residence. For years Variapa did washing and ironing for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in the days when Washerwoman bay was the laundry for the city.

Article 2: “Variapa the Hindoo” (September 16, 1893)

The second of the articles, from The San Francisco Examiner, September 16 1893, page 14, column 5:

Image of an old newspaper article. Transcription in the article below.


A Claim That the Centenarian Came to California in 1843.
He Has for His Housemate a Man to Whom He Never Speaks — Does His Own Housework and Clings to His Oriental Faith

Samuel Variapa, the Hindoo centenarian of North Beach, is one of those to whom the modern missionary has appealed in vain, if the appeal has beon made at all.

The little lane on the line from Franklin street to Fort Mason, on the line of Filbert street, contains quite a number of shanties which were built in the days of the Mexican war, and which were fashionable residences in 1849.

As frequently occurs in extreme old age Old Variapa’s memory is far brighter as to the events of his childhood than as to those of his youth or middle life. He speaks English very imperfectly, but his knowledge of Spanish is perfect, and he is at home in several of the Hindoo dialects, particularly Tamil.

Luis Navarro, a blacksmith, living at 420 Green street, is the present owner of the shanty in which Variapa resides, though the title to the property is contested by the other hermit in the same house.

“I have known old Variapa ever since I can remember,” said Navarro yesterday. “As far as I know he came to California in 1843.

“I should judge there must have been some mines worked there then, because I am told he gave ont as a reason for deserting his ship that he intended going to the mines. That is the story he has told himself and he ought to know.

“It is quite easy to believe one part of Variapa’s story that he was a cook on board one of the East India Company’s ships for a number of years. That would put his age back a long way, because the East India Company was broken up in ’57 or about that time, and I can remember him as quite a ‘solid’ man when I was a child, and when Washerwoman’s Lagoon was a lake with boats sailing on it.

“Yes, I remember old Variapa well. The story told about him then, though I could never get anything from him about it, was that he had been a cook aboard a man-of-war, and it was suspected before then that he had seen a little of privateering, not to say piracy. Of course, everything went in those days, but I have not the least doubt that Variapa had a very interesting life-story to teil before ever he came to this country if he chose to tell it.”

The man who lives in the shanty with Variapa is an Englishman and married a Mexican-Californian who owned the house. This man lives just such a life as old Variapa, except that he does not go out every day to lug home a backload of firewood.

Navarro, who is a very intelligent man, says there must have been fully forty or fifty Kanakas and Hindoos resident in the Franklin-Filbert section adjoining Washerwoman’s bay in the fifties.

Credits/Source: The original two-part San Francisco Examiner profile is by an unnamed writer and illustrator, and is available on Newspapers.com here and here. I posted about my discovery of the articles, including screenshots of the original text, on Twitter. The recreated photo of Variapa is original art crafted using a variety of generative AI tools by Anirvan Chatterjee, using Stable Diffusion ControlNet, with the Analog Madness v4 model, building on initial prompts like “analog style full body photograph of a very old bald Tamil South Indian man with wrinkled dark brown skin, patchy balding white hair and tiny unkempt goatee, tall wrinkled face, sitting down, wearing a long buttoned light yellow trenchcoat or duster-coat with four buttons, realistic fingers, wrinkled brown hands, hands on lap, full-body length, full-length photo, seated.”