After graduation, he began teaching at Swarthmore College where he remained until 1956. He moved to the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he taught from 1956 through 1975. There, Curtin and fellow historian Jan Vansina established a department of African languages and literature in 1956, as part of one of the first academic African studies programs established at a college in the United States. From 1975 until the time of his death he was a member of the faculty of Johns Hopkins University .
Recognized in 1983 as a MacArthur Fellow with its accompanying "genius grant", Curtin published a total of 19 books, which include Death by Migration: Europe's Encounter with the Tropical World in the Nineteenth Century, described by the American Historical Review (AHR) as "ground-breaking." In addition to the aforementioned calculation, he has challenged the commonly-held view that advances in medicine were responsible for increased attempts at European colonization of Africa in the 19th century.
In his 1969 book The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, Curtin researched the sources of frequently-used estimates of the number of individuals transported across the Atlantic Ocean in the slave trade. His analysis of shipping contracts and data from the ports of entry enabled him to arrive at an estimate of between 9 and 10 million individuals being transported on slave ships, with a margin of error of 20%, out of the 20 to 30 million that had been loaded aboard at ports in Africa. Prior to Curtin's research, estimates of the number of individuals brought from Africa as slaves ranged from 3.5 million to numbers as high as 100 million individuals. A widely cited number of 15 million slaves used by W. E. B. DuBois, who had in turn gotten the number from abolitionist Edward Dunbar. Another widely-quoted estimate of 20 million slaves was based on calculations using data on slaves in Jamaica that was adjusted for the entire Atlantic slave trade, though the original data used to make the calculations has since been lost.
His 1989 book Death by Migration combined medical and population history, tracking the effects of tropical diseases on Europeans in tropical Africa in the days before medicines were available to effectively treat these conditions.
A controversial opinion piece published in a 1995 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Ghettoizing African History" criticized the frequent confinement of African and African American scholars in college and university departments of history to positions in the history of Africa. Although Curtin mentioned that this practice might discourage some white academicians from entering the field, he in fact argued for more opportunities for scholars of African-American backgrounds in other, more numerous fields of history. His position was misunderstood at the time as a racial approach, and this misrepresentation has regrettably survived him.
While many visitors to Africa have been to Gorée Island in Senegal, described as a site where as many as 20 million Africans were fattened for shipment across the Atlantic Ocean from the Slave House after being shackled there in dank cells, Curtin debunked the traditional account, stating that "he whole story is phony". Curtin stated that the Slave House, one of the most beautiful houses on the island, would not have been used for storing slaves, that the rocks near the shore would make docking boats perilous and estimated that no more than 50,000 slaves had passed through the island over the years. Senegalese academics criticized Curtin's position, stating that he was guilty of "stealing their history".
Books: ♦ The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969)
♦ The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850 (1973, AHA Schuyler Prize)
♦ Africa and the West: Intellectual Responses to European Culture (1974)
♦ Precolonial African History (1975, AHA pamphlet)
♦ Economic Change in Precolonial Africa: Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade (1975)
♦ African History (co-author, 1978)
♦ Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (1984)
♦ Death by Migration: Europe’s Encounter with the Tropical World in the Nineteenth Century (1989)
♦ The Tropical Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade (1991, AHA pamphlet)
♦ Why People Move: Migration in African History (1995)
♦ The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (1998)
♦ Disease and Empire (1998)
♦ Migration and Mortality in Africa and the Atlantic World, 1700-1900 (2001)
♦ The World and the West (2002)
♦ On the Fringes of History: A Memoir (2005)
Doctoral Supervision (University of Wisconsin-Madison):
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