The Role of the Tropeiro in Colonial Brazil

I recently read a booklet called Comunicação e Cultura Brasileira (Communication and Brazilian Culture) by Virgílio Noya Pinto which looks at Brazilian history through the lens of communication. A short section on the job description of the tropeiro caught my eye, so I’ll translate it here. Pardon any run-on sentences as such a thing is not considered incorrect in the Portuguese language.

Cities, Towns, Settlements

It’s important to observe that the predominance of gold in the Brazilian economy determined profound social alterations. To start, the influx of Portuguese provoked an enormous demographic growth, which also was contributed to by the importation of African slaves, each time more necessary as labor in the extraction of gold and, previously, of diamonds. Another consequence was the development of urban life. While the sugar economy characterized itself by rural isolation, the gold economy developed urban life and with it emerged intermediary social classes which created an increasingly complex primitive duality between the owner-slave.

Highlighted among the new social types, under the point of view of communication, was the tropeiro. He was the transportation merchant, the possessor of a troop of muares (the species from which mules come), “that would go through the interior, renting their services, selling cargo space on its animals […] or acquiring items that he himself loads on the animals for future sale.” On his constant travels, he would draft webs of communication between the cities, the towns and the settlements and, at the same time, he was the official envoy, the mailman, and the bringer of news. He was the business broker, the bank agent, the note carrier and the ‘airman’ of ordered items and receipts. The troops were formed by allotments of mules guided by an experienced animal which received the name of madrinha (lit. godmother, sponsor). It was upon the madrinha that one demonstrated social hierarchy among the tropeiros: the richer or more powerful the tropeiro, the more decorated the animal, flaunting feathers, mirrors, tied ribbons, jingle bells and adornments of silver. In this sense, there can be an analogy made with the truckers and the eighteen-wheeler trucks these days.

The tropeiros of animals, aside from the economic role that they played, were also of grand importance as a means of communication in the 18th and 19th centuries in Brazil. They only began to disappear in the face of competition brought about by the ‘iron highways’.


Initially called homens do caminho, tratantes or viadantes, the tropeiros became fundamental to the trading of slaves, food and mining tools. Far from being specialized merchants, the tropeiros bought and sold a little of everything. The existence of tropeirismo was intimately related to the constant coming and going taking place on the roads and ‘highways’, with special mention to the Estrada real (Royal Highway) — the main path on which the mined gold arrived at the port in Rio de Janeiro.

Along the routes through which they traveled, they helped to sprout many of the present-day cities of Brazil. Settlements like Taubaté, Sorocaba, Viamão, Santana de Parnaíba, Cruz Alta and São Vicente are some of the pioneering cities that can be highlighted for the activities of their tropeiros.

One of the first markers of tropeirismo was when the Portuguese Court installed the Founding House of Taubaté, also known as the Royal Office of Quintos, in Taubaté Village (SP) in 1695. Starting from this point, all the gold extracted from Minas Gerais had to be taken through Taubaté and from there it went to the port of Parati, where it was taken to Portugal, via Rio de Janeiro. With all that gold leaving from Rio, it became an obvious choice as the capital of Brazil during this time, a title it kept for almost two centuries.

2 thoughts on “The Role of the Tropeiro in Colonial Brazil

  1. When I read you post, the first thing that came to mind was: feijão tropeiro is somehow related to this? So I looked it up and I found this:
    Maybe you’ve heard about this dish before. It part of the Brazilian cuisine.
    Another word that caught my attention was ‘tratante’. Nowadays they have a negative meaning. It’s a dishonest person. “Seu tratante!” Maybe these people in past became famous for tricking their clients.

  2. Yes, that was my first thought too when I saw it in the book. When I wrote and translated this post, I stayed up until late doing it so I didn’t add the feijão part. Thanks for reminding me.

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