Stellenbosch, South Africa
From Brazzaville, we travel almost two thousand miles south, crossing Angola and Namibia, and on to a small town not far inland from South Africa’s Atlantic coast.
After Cape Town, which lies roughly thirty miles to the west, Stellenbosch is the second-oldest European settlement in South Africa’s Western Cape province. Established in 1679, it was named after its founder, Simon van der Stel, the first governor of Dutch Cape Colony (which had itself been established only in the early 1650s).
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Stellenbosch remained a Dutch colony until the late 1700s, when a turbulent few decades saw both it and the Cape Colony as a whole change hands several times between the Dutch and the British. The British finally established complete control in 1814, and Stellenbosch remained under British rule until South Africa’s independence in 1961.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, British rule in South Africa was challenged: the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 saw two Boer-controlled states, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, rise up against the British colonists in the Cape. And it was during this time that the town of Stellenbosch earned itself a permanent place in our language.
A British remount camp – a military encampment set aside for the purchase, training, medical care and upkeep of war horses – was established in Stellenbosch at the outbreak of the war. This was long before the days of tanks, jeeps and other motorised military transport, and looking after the army’s horses was an important task in turn-of-the-century warfare. The camp was overseen by a revolving staff of British officers. Despite the horse’s welfare being of utmost importance to the future conduct of the war, the officers’ appointment to the Stellenbosch camp was less an indication of respect, and more evidence of their misconduct.
During the course of the war, officers whose strategies or conduct had not proved successful on the battlefield would find themselves relieved of front-line duty, sent to Stellenbosch, and there tasked with the considerably more behind-the-scenes responsibility of managing the camp. As the horses were imperative to the future of the war, the officers could not be said to have been demoted, but rather moved aside: the work was important, but by no means front-line duty, and those who worked at the Stellenbosch camp knew it. Before long, to be Stellenbosched had entered British Army slang:
Stellenboshed [sic] to be relegated, as the result of incompetence, to a position in which little harm can be done.
In the sense explained above, Stellenbosch is first recorded as early as 1900 (in a Daily Express article written by Rudyard Kipling), implying that this meaning established itself in the jargon of the British troops in South Africa almost immediately after the outbreak of the war. Over time it came to be used ever more loosely to mean ‘to remove from office’, but the stricter sense – of a subtle sidelining of someone, to an important but considerably less impactful position – remained the word’s truer meaning.
In that sense, the word remains criminally underused in English today.