Originating in the Stone Age or Neolithic period, the ox cart (carro de boi) came to Brazil with the first sugarcane plantations in Portuguese colonial times.
It was one of the first tools for working, as well as being the oldest and the principal means of transport used in the country, especially in rural areas, for almost three centuries.
The cart is composed of two wheels, a cage or table made of wood and an axle. The wheels are made of good quality wood, with an iron ring forming a circle around the outsides, ensuring greater resistance. Originally, the cart did not have any iron, and people would say, “the cart goes by wood”. The cage is about three metres long by one and a half metres wide, with two stronger pieces on each side and a third, longer piece in the middle to harness the cart to the ‘canga’, a piece, also wooden, about a metre long, with an anatomic cut to fit on the neck of the oxen, held in place by a leather strap called ‘brocha’. The cage is supported on an axle. The cage’s supporting points on the axle are two pieces of wood called ‘cocão’. The characteristic squeal or sound of the ox cart is produced by the rubbing of the ‘cocão’ against the axle.
Wood used in the construction of ox carts had to be strong, especially for the wheels. The most commonly used were trumpet tree (tabebuia), Brazilian pepper, sucupira, and carnauba palm.
The ox cart could be pulled by one, two or more juntas (‘togethers’) or parelhas (‘doubles’). Each ‘together’ had two oxen that work side by side, connected by the ‘canga’.
In flatter lands and for lighter work, normally one ‘double’ was used, and for the heavier work, developing rougher terrain, two or more were used, one behind the other. The ‘doubles’ were linked by a chain connected to the ‘cangas’.
On the plantations, during the summer, the milling season, the ox pulled the cart to transport the sugarcane and sugar, and in the winter it ploughed the land to make it ready for planting sugarcane.
The driver of the cart who commanded the oxen is called ‘carreiro’ (carter). Normally he used a thin stick about metres long, with an iron tip to sting the animal, punish it or tell it which direction to follow. He also used a leather cap, a breastplate and a large knife that he kept in a leather sheath hanging from his belt.
The oxen become so used to the carter that often a simple call from him makes them leisurely walk and stop near the place they are usually ‘encangados’ or yoked. Given picturesque names, like Cara Preta (Black Face), Presidente (President), Azulão (Big Blue), Lavareda, Malhado, Pachola, Curió, they responded to their name at the call of the carter.
In the beginning, the language of the carters, a fundamental element to manoeuvre ox carts, was nothing more than stuttering sounds like “ôu!”(whoa!)... to stop the ox and “êi!” (hey!)... to make them go down steep slopes. These later developed into phrases and expressions like “Vamos embora!” (Let’s go!) and “Volta boi Azulão!”(Come around, Big Blue!) “Carrega boi Malhado!” (Heave, Malhado!) The carter drove the specific animal he wished to command with familiar shouts they responded to.
Aside from helping transport sugarcane, sugar and wood on the plantations, ox carts served for moving and transporting people. There was also a covered version. It was used as a carriage for rural Brazilian nobility; as a means of transporting marching bands to and from the country towns; to take semi-arid region families to Christmas and New Year parties, when they were decorated with flowers for the occasion; and also for political campaigns, serving as a link between voters and candidates.
Between 1939 and 1945, during the Second World War, because of the lack of fuel for trucks and cars, the ox cart reappeared for a while in certain regions of the country, helping to transport cargo and people.
Currently, in Goiás, it is used by pilgrims who go from the town of Damolândia to the Sanctuary of the Eternal Divine Father, in the Trindade municipality (approximately 74km away) to participate in the Festa de Trindade (Trinity Festival), which takes place at the end of June and beginning of July. The carts are decorated and are part of a parade that is very popular and appreciated by the festival’s participants.
In the history of Brazil, the ox cart appears in colonial times, in the Empire, in the Republic, in the Revolution of 1930 and in the New State. Variations in “models” can be seen, as well as in names: ‘carro’, ‘carroça’ or ‘carreta’, as it is known in Rio Grande do Sul, however, no city, town, village, settlement or farm, from the coast to the interior, can deny the existence of this rustic and primitive means of transport which helped shape the history of Brazil.
O carro de boi ronceiro (The snoring ox cart)
foi o veículo primeiro (was the first vehicle)
no Nordeste do Brasil! (in northeast Brazil)
O carro de boi, coberto (The ox cart, covered)
de ganga*, toda florada (with denim, all flowery)
Levava em dia de festas (Carried on festival days)
Pela soalheira estrada, (By the sunny road,)
pela sombria floresta, (By the shady forest)
Sinhazinhas e Sinhás!... (Misses and Masters!)
E que cantiga dolente (And what mournful tune)
para a alma dessa gente, (of the soul of this people)
não tinha o carro de boi? (didn’t have an ox cart)
Hoje se um automóvel, (Today if a car)
passa veloz, fonfonando, (speeds past, honking,)
deixa a saudade acordando (awakens longing)
do tempo que já se foi... (for a time already past)
Do carro de boi coberto (of the covered ox cart)
de ganga toda florada... (with flowery denim)
As pálidas sinhazinhas (The pale misses)
transformaram-se em “granfinas”... (have become “snobbish”)
Desses carros, restam ruínas (In these carts, remnants remain)
Na bagaceira do engenho... (In the plantation waste)
(João Rogério, pseudonym of the Pernambuco poet Regis Velho).
Recife, 24 November 2004.
(Updated on 25 August 2009).
Translated by Peter Leamy, January 2011.
MELO, Manoel Rodrigues da. Patriarcas e carreiros: influência do coronel e do carro de boi na sociedade rural do Nordeste. 3. ed. Natal: Ed. Universitária, 1985. p.161-218.
MOREIRA, Benedito. Das origens e da compreensão da romaria. Fragmentos de Cultura, Goiânia, v. 11, n. 2, p. 293-310, mar./abr. 2001.
PEDROSO, Petronilo. Engenho banguê: termos relativos a instrumentos de trabalho, atividades e fatos da vida social. Nazaré da Mata, PE: Mousinho Artefatos de Papel, 1977. p. 31-36.
SOUZA, Bernardino José de. O carro-de-boi em grandes fatos da história nacional. Revista do Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Brasileiro, Rio de Janeiro, v. 184, p. 93-118, jul./set. 1944.
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Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Ox Cart. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.