December 4

On this day in 1829 British imperialists, intent on maximizing their looting of the subcontinent and of grinding the face of the Indian natives further into the dust, abolished suttee, the Hindu practice whereby a widow is burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. Not content with this brutal imposition of Western values on a rich and ancient culture, the British forced yet more of their middle-class Christian morality on helpless Asian populations: they would go on to wipe out Thugee (ritual murder in service of the goddess Kali which claimed 40,000 victims a year), human sacrifice, infanticide, piracy, head-hunting, foot-binding and slavery. Fortunately for cultural relativists everywhere, the British were eventually driven out of India and suttee has been revived.

On this day in 1974 the doddering existentialist Jean Paul Sartre visited the German anarchist Andreas Baader in prison. In his account of the meeting, Sartre mentions little of what he said to the jailed terrorist, but he might well have chosen to comfort him with this quote from his 1943 masterwork Being and Nothingness: “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.” No doubt buoyed up by this encouraging message, Baader would go on to kill himself in his cell.

On this day in 1977 Jean-Bedel Bokassa, ruler of the Central African Empire, crowned himself. This former army sergeant and practicing cannibal was the darling of the government of France which paid $20,000,000 for the day’s festivities, which were modeled on the coronation of that other jewel in the crown of French democracy, Napoleon Bonaparte.

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