San Remo occurs in the traditional land of the Bunurong people.
European contact with the Bunurong in Western Port was initially by sealers and whalers in Bass Straight from the late 1790’s. The Bunurong also occupied French and Phillip Islands until displaced by sealers. However it was 1802 when the first European contact was made with the Bunurong near Bass River. All records of European and Bunurong contact until 1835, have been recorded as peaceful, despite accounts from early as 1826 of Europeans kidnapping and taking aboriginal women as slaves and concubines.
In 1839 William Thomas was appointed Assistant Protector, in charge of the welfare of Aboriginals (Murphy 2003). Thomas completed a census in 1839 of the Bunurong, which suggested that the tribe once consisted (before European settlement) of over 500 people or six square miles per person. A count in the same year revealed that there were 83 members of the Bunurong remaining, many falling victim to small pox, influenza and venereal disease. In 1850 the count was 28 and by 1856 the remaining Bunurong were moved to a reserve in ‘Moody Yallock,’ known today as Mordialloc (Murphy 2003).
Within the tribe of the Bunurong the Yallock Bulluk Beek clan occupied San Remo (Yallock meaning river and Balug meaning people). They survived by hunting any meat in the area including eels, kangaroos, possums and koala. Fishing also appears to have been a dominant activity. The availability of food and materials would have been seasonally based; including such components as mutton-birds and nesting birds and their eggs in spring and seals in the summer. Fruit and vegetable components consisted of the murnong (Yam Daisy), wattle gum (seeds and gum), drooping mistletoe, kangaroo apple, wild cherry, wild current (fruits), sea celery (stems), coastal banksia (nectar), casaurina (water from foliage), angular pigface (leaves, fruits, roots) wetland root crops (such as Typa, Triglochin) and dry land root crops (such as Microseris scaigera). Early Europeans noted the use of fire in the landscape as early as 1802 in which they concluded aboriginal people deliberately lighted fires.
Particular points of interest outlined in the Draft Cultural Heritage Assessment are Griffiths Point, Shelly Beach and Bore Beach, in the Bass Strait precinct. Large middens can be found at Griffith Point that signifies the importance to past generations of Bunurong people. Shelly Beach is generally understood to be of important to the Bunurong women, using the shells, which collected on the beach they made items to trade with other clans. Rocks falling from the cliffs were used to make grind bowls. Bore Beach received its name due to the drilling for coal by the early European settlers. Bunurong men prepared stone tools and collected Ochre for ceremonies. Mutton-birds and penguins were also found at this site. Both Shelly and Bore Beaches had a permanent supply of fresh water.
There are 16 Registered Archaeological Sites in the San Remo area ranging from low to very high significance, including two burial sites.
In 1797 George Bass, a naval surgeon and explorer, took a voyage in an open whaleboat to explore the coastline. George Bass named Western Port in 1798 after been forced inland whilst exploring Bass Strait. Bass explored the area for two weeks until he came across the fresh waters of what is now known as the Bass River.
In his report George Bass noted the vast seal colonies of the region and encouraged sealers into the area. In the subsequent years other English and French vessels visited Western Port. By the 1820’s there were camps of sealers on Phillip Island and the other islands of Bass Strait. In 1834 Captain Hart led the first expedition of whalers from Portland to collect wattle bark. Samuel Anderson and his business partner Robert Massie first settled the area in 1835. Around 1840 a deepwater port was established at Davis Point in order to provide exports of wattle bark, farm produce and cattle, and then later coal starting in the 1870s. In 1867 a survey by Callanan separated the township of Griffiths Point (San Remo) into 28 lots. In 1888 the township was renamed San Remo after the resort town in Italy. Early in the 20th Century, commercial fishing of King George Whiting began with the produce being sent to Melbourne markets via railway.