Rugby league great Mal Meninga traces his ancestry in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
Rugby league great Mal Meninga traces his ancestry in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?

Meninga tackles his family's past

RUGBY league icon Mal Meninga has not watched his emotional and at times confronting documentary of his first visit to the tiny Pacific Island of Tanna in Vanuatu in his search of answers about his ancestry.

"They (SBS) would not let me watch it," Meninga told Australian Regional Media of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, which airs on SBS tomorrow at 7.30pm.

Meninga has always wanted to know more about his ancestors and especially if they were "black-birded".

Black-birding was a common term used for enslaving South Pacific Islanders, often through deception or force, to provide cheap labour on sugar cane plantations in Queensland.

"The people that were coerced or black-birded on to boats, they never set foot back in their home communities again, their home islands," Meninga says during the 30-minute episode.

"To me, that's treachery, that's traitorous."

Meninga knew bits and pieces about his family's history.

When he was approached by SBS to help him find the missing pieces to his ancestry puzzle, he was keen to take on the challenge.

"I knew enough of the past to form some personal views but I didn't know a great deal about how my great-grandfather came over here," he said.

"I always wondered whether he was black-birded or came of his own volition.

"The other thing I wanted to know was how my grandfather managed to stay in Queensland with the White Australia Policy at the turn of the century."

Under that policy a lot of Meninga's countrymen were deported and taken back to their islands.

"What happened to my great-grandfather and others in these times bordered on slavery," Meninga said.

He said he was very happy to discover that his great-grandfather had made a personal decision to come to Queensland to start a new life.

Taking on the name Thomas Tanna, as many South Sea Islanders adopted their village or island name as their surname, he had swum out to sea one day and climbed on a ship bound for the port of Maryborough, where the boats from the Pacific Islands landed.

"That pleases me enormously because he was obviously a man of adventure," Meninga said.

"It makes me proud he had the courage to do what he did, to jump into the water and swim out to the boat with a few mates because he clearly wanted to go a new adventure.

"He was brave and he had the fortitude, the will and the adventure in him to forge his own life.

"I'm a reflection of that and my dad (Norm) was a reflection of that.

"Everything makes sense to me now."

Meninga said Tannanese people were highly valued because they were strong, healthy, hard workers.

He said his great-grandfather had been "like a trade unionist fighting for better conditions, better pay and better accommodation".

"When he first got here, he was paid six pounds a week, which was 10 times less than the average Australian was earning," he explained.

He eventually married a white Irish woman, which Meninga said would have been "taboo back in those days".

A scene in the documentary where Meninga finally finds his great-grandfather's grave is very moving.

"I was shocked at that moment, to be honest," Meninga told ARM.

"I was really disappointed it was what it was, just a plot of grass.

"It wasn't the greatest tribute to him that's all."

Meninga has experienced the emotions of winning grand finals, State of Origin series as a coach and a player and Test matches for his country many times.

But this personal journey was very different.

This was a journey he needed to take to finally get closure.

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