Malaria transmission is influenced by climate, land use and deliberate interventions. Recent declines have been observed in malaria transmission. Here we show that the African continent has witnessed a long-term decline in the prevalence of Plasmodium falciparum from 40% prevalence in the period 1900-1929 to 24% prevalence in the period 2010-2015, a trend that has been interrupted by periods of rapidly increasing or decreasing transmission. The cycles and trend over the past 115 years are inconsistent with explanations in terms of climate or deliberate intervention alone. Previous global initiatives have had minor impacts on malaria transmission, and a historically unprecedented decline has been observed since 2000. However, there has been little change in the high transmission belt that covers large parts of West and Central Africa. Previous efforts to model the changing patterns of P. falciparum transmission intensity in Africa have been limited to the past 15 years or have used maps drawn from historical expert opinions. We provide quantitative data, from 50,424 surveys at 36,966 geocoded locations, that covers 115 years of malaria history in sub-Saharan Africa; inferring from these data to future trends, we would expect continued reductions in malaria transmission, punctuated with resurgences.