Champion Rugby League player, captain and coach Mal Meninga is something of a legend in Australian sport, but growing up he was often in the dark about his own family history. He knew his ancestors came from the South Sea Islands but he didn't know when, how or which ancestor was the one to first make the journey.
Mal's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? sees him probe further. He wants to know if he is descended from an indentured labourer forcibly removed from the Pacific Islands to work in Queensland’s cane fields, and how his family line continued once the enforcement of the infamous White Australia Policy saw South Sea islanders summarily deported.
In an interview with SBS Online, Mal spoke about what he discovered as he undertook this journey into his family's past.
Q. What was the most interesting thing you learned about yourself during the making of the program?
Mal: I thought the whole process was interesting - albeit frustrating. Not knowing what’s around the corner... What little surprise would be revealed next.
I particularly enjoyed going to Tanna Island and seeing where my great Grandfather leapt off its shores to begin his new adventure in Queensland. An adventure that empowered his future family to be who they are today.
To understand importantly that it was through his own desire for a better life rather than to believe he was black birded was the tangible reason he left Tanna.
Q. Was your journey an emotional one? What triggered the strongest feelings along the way?
Mal: It would always be an emotional rollercoaster. A voyage of ups and downs. I think the biggest emotional attachment I had was going to his village of birth.
To be greeted by his people, to dance and sing, and to stay there amongst them was an incredible experience.
To sleep in the ancestral village of Toowital and to dream so deeply and vividly, it took me by surprise and it definitely connected me to his life and the decisions he made!
Q. How does knowing about your family history change how you see yourself and your family?
Mal: I feel very privileged and honoured that my Great Grandfather did what he done. It was through his courage and resilience that has allowed me to prosper in life. I hope I have done him proud! I hope others in my family will identify that through this hardship, it created a better life for us.
Q. What was the hardest thing for you to learn or accept about your family?
Mal: The hardest was seeing his non-descript grave in Maryborough being the last remnants of his life. He deserves more!
Q. Do you see a connection between any of your own traits that could be attributed to your ancestors? How so?
Mal: I know though hard work, perseverance, assertiveness and humility your life can be full. I believe these are the traits he possessed and made his life full.
Q. Do you have any advice for anyone hoping to seek out their own family tree?
Mal: If you feel you need to do it, and think you need to do it, DO IT!
Q. How did the reality of filming Who Do You Think You Are? differ from your expectations?
Mal: It didn’t. I knew it was going to be an exhaustive but enjoyable time of my life if I gave myself to the experience.
Q. What was the best thing about the experience?
Mal: Finding out the truth about my Great Grandfather, laying to rest the innuendo and stories of past generations. Finding him and where he rests.
Q. Are there any lessons that contemporary Australians could draw from your own family history and experience?
Mal: It is virtually a story untold. The South Sea Islanders played a very important part in Queensland agricultural and transport history. They are people who aren’t native to Australia but have integrated extremely well into Australian society. Without fuss or prejudice, the Australian South Sea Islander are members that make a difference to their communities. They work hard, they don’t complain, they know what’s wrong and right, they are part of the solution and not the problem. I revere my heritage and its people.