Toussaint Louverture was born a slave in the thriving French colony of Saint-Domingue. In the early 1790s, he took part in a massive uprising that demolished slavery in the colony. He became the revolution’s greatest military and political leader, consolidating the freedom it had won and

laying the foundation for the creation of Haiti in 1804. Given this, you might imagine that Louverture would have a proper tomb. Or that we know what he looked like, and can agree on how to spell his name.

But after dying in a cold prison in the Jura Mountains in 1803, he was thrown into a nearby unmarked grave. No one knows where his bones are. Although there are a few images of him probably drawn from life, many others are the pure product of imagination. While he signed his name “Louverture,” it is typically spelled “L’Ouverture.” Many writers refer to him as “Toussaint.” This makes sense, given that he took on the name “Louverture” only late in life. But even though his nemesis, Napoleon, gets the same treatment, it’s still a bit jarring–imagine historians of the American Revolution writing about George and Thomas.

Louverture does have his monuments. An urn with dirt from the graveyard where he was buried sits in the Muse du Panthon in Port-au-Prince, and there is a statue of him across from the National Palace. In 2001 President Jean-Bertrand Aristide built a monument commemorating Louverture’s 1801 Constitution. After being expelled from the country in 2004 Aristide quoted the famous statement Louverture made when he was deported two centuries earlier: “In overthrowing me, they have uprooted the trunk of the liberty of the blacks; it will grow back because its roots are many and deep.” Aristide then rephrased the quote to cast himself as a descendant of Louverture: “I declare in overthrowing me they have uprooted the trunk of the tree of peace, but it will grow back because the roots are Louverturian.”

Haitian leaders are not the only ones who have claimed Louverture as a founder. When, in 1998, the French government commemorated the (final) abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848, Louverture’s name was inscribed in a wall in the Panthon, the temple of French national heroes. The gesture, urged by Caribbean activists in France, was an attempt to repudiate the actions of Bonaparte, who had Louverture imprisoned, and to argue that in his struggle against France Louverture embodied the Republic’s true values. But can Louverture be a hero for France and Haiti at the same time?

In his acclaimed trilogy of novels about the Haitian Revolution–All Souls’ Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused–Madison Smartt Bell presented a riveting portrait of Louverture. The novels are deeply grounded in the historical sources of the period, no small feat given how extensive and often contradictory they are. But still hungry for the history of the Haitian Revolution–it has a way of grabbing you and holding on–Bell has now produced an excellent biography of Toussaint Louverture. For fans of the novels eager to read more, or for those daunted by the 2,000 pages of the trilogy, Toussaint Louverture provides a readable and engaging narrative, one likely to become the standard biography in English about this remarkable figure. (Full disclosure: I am thanked in the book’s acknowledgments.)

Who was Louverture? For nearly two centuries, most writers portrayed him as a former slave who was freed by the Haitian Revolution itself. Then, in 1977, a group of historians published an article in Haiti showing that he was freed during the 1770s, managed a coffee plantation and briefly owned a slave. As a revolutionary leader, Louverture rarely evoked this chapter in his life, preferring to emphasize his connection to the former slaves who made up the majority in the colony. Indeed, he was a master at presenting himself as he wished to be seen, to the point that, as Bell writes, “during the first fifty years of his life, Toussaint walked so very softly that he left next to no visible tracks at all.”

Bell, however, has tracked down a number of new sources located in private collections, and provides a very detailed account of Louverture’s life before and after the revolution. It makes clear there is no way to fit Louverture easily into one social category. A former slave but also a former slave owner, he was revered as a leader of the black masses in Haiti but also as a trusted collaborator of former slave owners. He used force to win freedom but also to contain it. He managed the colony, writes Bell, “so as to prove to the whole European world that slavery was not necessary to the success of the plantation economy,” and that “sugar and coffee production could be revived” but “with free labor.” He rebuilt the plantation economy, but at a cost: He created a coercive labor regime with aspects of “raw authoritarianism,” in which the former slaves who led the army threatened other former slaves into continuing to work on the plantations.

To sustain his regime, he skillfully navigated the political currents of the broader Atlantic. Within France, many were eager to reverse emancipation, but for a time they were kept at bay by its defenders, who celebrated Louverture for winning battles and maintaining order. But Louverture’s independence alarmed many French officials. He negotiated trade deals with Britain and the United States, insuring that the colony had markets for its sugar and coffee and that his army had plenty of guns and ammunition. Congress kept trade open with Louverture even when the United States boycotted France, and John Adams deployed the Navy to support Louverture against his internal enemy, Andr Rigaud, in the nation’s first military intervention in the Caribbean. The support was short-lived: Thomas Jefferson, elected in 1800, was very hostile to Louverture, seeing the revolution mainly as a dangerous example for slaves in the United States.

The Haitian Revolution was the first American experiment in large-scale emancipation, and Louverture–with no guidance from precedent and little support from the French government–managed the transition. He had to confront daunting questions: What, precisely, is freedom? How do you transform a society made by slavery into one that assures the dignity and freedom of former slaves? He was a pioneer not only because he created and consolidated freedom in the colony but also because the regime he created ultimately fell short in crucial ways. It was a failure shared by all those governors in the Americas who would follow in his footsteps.

Despite the lengths to which Louverture went to prove that the colony could be profitable without slavery, the French under Bonaparte ultimately tried to re-establish slavery, with disastrous results for the tens of thousands of French troops and many local fighters and civilians who died in the conflict that ensued. Bonaparte and his advisers believed they could isolate and overthrow Louverture and the other black leaders of the colony, and that the population would submit. They did not understand how deeply the revolution had transformed the colony. It had created a racially integrated army made up largely of ex-slaves, many of them officers; in one case, a former master served in a unit commanded by his former slave. On the plantations, laborers received payment, had some control over their work regimes and were able to carve out more time and space to cultivate food for themselves. Whatever their dissatisfaction with Louverture’s regime, they knew it was an important advance over slavery. When the French threatened to take freedom away, many were ready to fight. Even after Louverture was captured in mid-1802, and after most of his major generals had capitulated to the French, small groups of insurgents kept fighting. French brutality and the specter of a return to slavery steadily expanded the resistance, which finally triumphed with the creation of Haiti in 1804.

The pace of change during the Haitian Revolution was remarkable. In a few years, slaves gained not only freedom but French citizenship. When France turned against emancipation, they created an independent state. In forging a new community, they dramatically expanded the meaning of freedom.

At the time of independence the majority of Haitians had been born in Africa. Historians have struggled with the question of how best to understand the actions and ideas of this extremely diverse African population, most of whom left no written documents behind. In thinking about this question, Bell at times leans, unwisely, on the term “tribal” as a way of describing the perspective of these exiled survivors of the Middle Passage. While there were communities of language and meaning forged out of common background in Africa–there was a massive influx of people from the Kongo region during the decades before the revolution, when up to 40,000 slaves arrived each year in the colony–they were linked by a range of religious, linguistic and political affinities that cannot be subsumed under the term “tribe.” The revolution, meanwhile, created and sustained new identities among people on the move, and on the march, as they forged a life for themselves beyond slavery. They often identified themselves not as members of a particular group from Africa but as “Africans,” joined by the experience of exile and oppression in the New World.

In contrast to most of the African-born protagonists of the Haitian Revolution–indeed, most of the ex-slaves who participated in it–Louverture left behind a large collection of documents. A few were written by his hand in a phonetic French, but most–including many letters and occasional pamphlets–were dictated by him to secretaries, and edited and re-edited as they read drafts back to him in sessions that often lasted through the night. Among them is a series of letters, well showcased in Bell’s biography, in which Louverture explains how he negotiated with a group of rebels, giving us a partial glimpse of his skills at oratory and negotiation. Such writings, only a few of which are translated into English, represent a major intellectual and political legacy, and they drive Bell’s chronicle of his rise and fall.

When the first biographies of Louverture were written in the nineteenth century, to write about Haiti was inevitably to intervene in the debate about the morality of slavery and the capacities of former slaves to be free. For those who supported slavery, the violence of the insurgent slaves–often exaggerated in atrocity stories that maintain their purchase to this day–and the situation in Haiti in the nineteenth century were represented in such a way as to argue that blacks needed to be contained by white domination.

Abolitionists–including Thomas Clarkson, Frederick Douglass and Victor Schoelcher, who wrote a biography of Louverture–told a different story, celebrating the victory in Haiti as part of a larger assault on slavery, arguing that the violence of the insurrection was generated by the violence of the institution it justly sought to destroy. Even for those who had ambiguous feelings about the revolution, Louverture stood as a clear refutation of ideas of black inferiority. Effusively celebrated by his allies, he also gained the grudging (if conveniently posthumous) admiration of the French general Pamphile de Lacroix, who had fought against him.

Louverture inspired the great Trinidadian writer and activist C.L.R. James, who in the 1930s first wrote a play and then a history about him. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938) channeled Louverture into the present, celebrating his heroism but also examining the tragedies and ironies of his often dictatorial rule, using his story to trace the promises and pitfalls of struggles for independence. The book has become a classic in the literature of anticolonial revolts, inspiring many readers, including Bell.

In Haiti, meanwhile, several generations of scholars, from Paulus Sannon and Edner Brutus to Roger Dorsinville and Claude Mose, have written important works about Louverture, though unfortunately none have been translated into English. Louverture’s choices are often evoked in discussions about the course of Haitian history. Sometimes he is favorably compared with those who followed, particularly Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Louverture distinguished himself for the way that he negotiated both with white planters and the United States and Britain. Dessalines, in contrast, famously ordered the massacre of most of the white inhabitants who remained in Haiti after independence in an episode described in bloody detail by Bell in both his novels and the biography.

Would Louverture have spared the whites? Would he have crafted a better relationship between Haiti and other nations? Perhaps. But when he fought against the French, Louverture was in many ways as resolute and merciless as Dessalines would be later, and had he survived the brutal and genocidal campaigns of the French during their final days in Saint-Domingue–when even loyal black soldiers were massacred simply for the color of their skin–he may have reacted as Dessalines did. And Dessalines, like Louverture, combined repression with negotiation, allowing some whites to stay in the country, naturalizing them, welcoming them into the black race when he decreed all Haitian citizens to be black.

After independence, many elites sought to continue Louverture’s economic policy of maintaining some plantations, and the coffee economy boomed during certain periods, something usually forgotten in streamlined histories that portray Haiti’s subsequent economic history as one of inexorable decline. Much of the population, however, for obvious reasons, preferred to own their own land rather than toil on plantations, and to grow food for themselves and for sale in local rather than international markets. Had it not been for the relentless hostility of other countries, notably the crippling indemnity levied by France in 1825 in return for diplomatic recognition, these economic alternatives might have proved sustainable.

Today it is difficult to find a mention of Haiti in the American press without the phrase “the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere” tacked on like some kind of dogged trademark. But as Haitian architect Patrick Delatour noted in a conference last year, when Haiti was a colony most of its capital was invested in the bodies of its slaves. When Haitians refused their status as property and forced France to accept them as people, they also transformed a rich colony into a poor nation. Was it their fault that the two went together?

The autonomy and dignity that Louverture sought to achieve, in his sometimes troubling way, is still more of a promise than a reality in Haiti. To understand why, we need to grapple with both the successes and failures of Haiti’s leaders and the intensity of the forces arrayed against them, much as Bell does with Louverture. That we still need to go back 200 years to find a way to look forward is in some sense a tragedy. But it is also, as Bell suggests, an opportunity and a responsibility.

When Louverture’s jailers discovered his corpse in April 1803, they found a piece of paper tucked into the bandanna wrapped around his head. On it was a message. Louverture complained of being arbitrarily arrested and sent off “as naked as an earthworm,” with no chance to hear the charges against him or to respond: “Is it not to cut off someone’s legs and order him to walk? Is it not to cut out his tongue and tell him to talk? Is it not to bury a man alive?” Placing the paper on his forehead, writes Bell, “was a magical act: a plea to the unseen world for justice.” If Louverture’s plea for justice for himself is finally starting to be answered, his denunciation is as relevant today as ever.