Who Do You Think You Are - Season 8, Episode 4 recap

Mal Meninga


Season 8 of the popular family history show Who Do You Think You Are? screened over several weeks during 2016. Here at State Records of South Australia we recapped each episode at the time and highlighted any records in our collection relevant to topics covered. Now on our blog for your reading pleasure are all of our recaps. 

Episode 4 featured Rugby League player and coach, Mal Meninga. Mal wanted to know how his South Sea Islander ancestors came to be in Australia, and how they were able to stay following the introduction of the White Australia Policy in 1901.


Mal’s brother, Geoff, was able to shed some light on their first South Sea Islander ancestor – their great-grandparents’ marriage certificate showed Edward Meninga, born in Tanna (an island in Vanuatu), marrying Irish-born Mary Ellen Kelly in Maryborough, Queensland.


After visiting Bundaberg and learning about the practice of kidnapping or coercing South Sea Islanders to work on sugar cane fields in Queensland from the 1860s (known as ‘blackbirding’), Mal visited the Queensland State Archives to search their South Sea Islander index to find a record of Edward Meninga in Australia. Mal was unable to find anyone named ‘Meninga’ in the index, but the archivist explained that the Australian clerks responsible for creating the original records would have been instructed to write names phonetically and generally did not have a good grasp of native languages. Mal found a possible ancestor under the name ‘Maninga’. The records he viewed showed a Maninga from a village ‘Toowetal’ on Tanna Island, arriving in Queensland aboard the ‘Roderick Dhu’ in 1889. Unsure if this Maninga was his ancestor, as the information provided was quite brief, a third record showed Manninga (a further different spelling) married to a white woman, Mary Ellen Kelly.


Mal then travelled to Tanna Island, where he had a traditional greeting and was welcomed home. Edward’s home village was not Toowetal, as described in Australian records, but ‘Lowital’. And his surname wasn’t Maninga, Manninga or Meninga – it was Meringa. It was later explained that ‘Meringa’ is a custom name, given at a special ceremony, which is attached to particular lands and gives the name-holder rights to that land.

It was at Kwamera, a village in Southern Tanna, that Mal learned how Edward came to leave Tanna for Queensland. He was shown two documents – one by a missionary and one by a labour recruiter. Both documents referred to four boys, including Edward, swimming out to the ‘Roderick Dhu’ when it was in Kwamera to allow a crew member to see his sister. The missionary wrote that they were assured the boat would not be picking up any workers, and were saddened to learn the next morning that four boys had been taken aboard. The document from the ‘Roderick Dhu’ stated that the boys wanted to go to Queensland, on the ‘Roderick Dhu’ or any other boat.

Back in Australia, Mal wanted to know for sure if Edward remained in Australia permanently. The records he saw at the Queensland State Archives said Edward was brought out to Australia on a three-year contract. At the Irrawarra plantation, records viewed proved that Edward did not return to Tanna – he did not use his return ticket.

Edward was in Queensland in 1901, when the colonies became a Federation and a series of laws known as the ‘White Australia Policy’ were implemented. The White Australia Policy intended to stop immigration of Chinese and Islander workers – it banned new work contracts for South Sea Islanders from March 1904 and ordered their deportation from 1906.

South Sea Islanders could only stay in Australia under special circumstances – an example of a man who had lived in Australia for 16 years and was of good character was not enough to be allowed to stay. As explained, one special circumstance was if an Islander married a non-Islander, as it was not considered safe to make a non-Islander move to an island that was not their home. Edward Meninga was married to an Irish woman, which must have been the special circumstance that allowed him to stay.

Mal went to the Maryborough Cemetery, where Edward is buried. Finding a burial record proved difficult, as he was not using the name ‘Edward Meninga’ when he died. Instead, he used the name ‘Thomas Tanner’. It was not uncommon for South Sea Islanders to use the name of their home island as a surname and, yet again, it looks like phonetic spelling! It was not explained why he began using the name ‘Thomas’ and not ‘Edward’.

Edward Meninga/Thomas Tanner had an unmarked grave, but his family placed notices in the ‘Courier Mail’ on the anniversary of his death. These notices suggested that Edward/Thomas did not have his family with him when he died.

This episode highlights some of the difficulties that can be found by family researchers when searching for records: misspellings. Not including ‘Thomas Tanner’, Edward’s surname was recorded with four different spellings: Maninga, Manninga, Meninga and Meringa. It was only through cross-checking records that Mal was able to discover that ‘Maninga’ was the same person as Edward Meninga.

Inconsistent spelling is very common in historical records, not just of people from non-English speaking backgrounds. Clerks wrote down what they were told (or what they thought they were told), so Edward Meninga’s accent probably – to the Australian clerks – turned ‘L’ into ‘T’ and ‘ER’ into ‘AN’. While it is generally not so common for a person to change their first name, like Edward did – to Thomas, it is also useful to check middle names because they were sometimes used in place of a first name, particularly if a son shared a name like his father (Mal’s grandfather was also named Edward).

Although this episode used records from Queensland and Tanna, as well as Tannese oral history, there are records of similar types at State Records that can be useful for South Australian researchers:

  • Special Lists: Mal viewed an index of South Sea Islanders at the Queensland State Archives (State Records’ Queensland counterpart). This index appears to be similar to our Special Lists – a tool created after the records are archived to help researchers find particular people in an otherwise unsearchable record (like a register). State Records’ Special Lists include records relating to immigration schemes, as well as many other topics.
  • Burial records: Mal’s great-grandfather was buried in an unmarked grave, so the only way to pinpoint an exact burial place was through a burial register. Some cemeteries are managed by government agencies and so State Records may hold records from the relevant place of burial. However, we do not hold comprehensive indexes for burials in South Australian cemeteries. A search would need to begin with the name of the cemetery. Burials in Australia prior to 1954 might be able to be identified through funeral notices posted in the now digitised newspapers. The Adelaide Cemeteries Authority hosts an online search tool for burials at cemeteries under their umbrella.
  • Birth, Death or Marriage (BDM) certificates: State Records holds copies of the indexes of Births Deaths and Marriages from 1842 to 1928 (for births), 1937 (for marriages) and 1972 (for deaths). An online version of the indexes is available for searching.
  • Immigration: State Records holds many records relating to immigration and passenger arrivals, details of which can be found on our Immigration fact sheet.

If you would like some more information on the above records, or have a question about how our collection can help you with your family history research then you can send an enquiry.

More WDYTYA Season 8 recaps can be found on the State Records blog.

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