In April 1861 an English woman named Jane Franklin disembarked in Honolulu. The Hawaiian language newspaper Ka Hae Hawaii noted her arrival and described her as “kaulana loa” (very famous). It was no exaggeration. Lady Franklin was an intrepid explorer who relished the outdoors and who had traveled independently to Constantinople, Greece, Egypt and Nazareth.
She was also the wife of Sir John Franklin, one of Great Britain’s most celebrated Arctic explorers, a man whose reputation as a Victorian hero had been cemented by a perilous 1819 expedition. But Lady Franklin’s life had been upended in 1845, the year her husband was last seen alive—he had disappeared into the Canadian Arctic along with his two ships and a crew of 128 men while attempting to locate the fabled shortcut to Asia, the Northwest Passage.
Sir John and his crew were presumed lost, but Lady Franklin refused to give up hope. She devoted everything to finding her husband. She pored over the latest maps and sea charts and interviewed polar explorers. With the help of her husband’s niece Sophia Cracroft, she pressured the British government to keep searching. She was quick to remind the British press not to forget the lost heroes. She lobbied the United States’ government and kept the story in the pages of American newspapers.
It worked. Over an eleven-year span, from 1848 to 1859, Great Britain and the United States sent out some thirty-five expeditions to search for Sir John and his crew. Lady Franklin’s quest was immortalized in song: By 1850 the very popular broadside ballad Lady Franklin’s Lament had appeared. Even Henry David Thoreau responded to her passionate appeals for help.“Is [Sir John] Franklin the only man who is lost, that his wife should be so earnest to find him?” wrote Thoreau in 1854.
Lady Franklin’s trip to Hawai‘i in 1861 came during a longer trip to North and South America, a trip meant to be cathartic. In 1859 she had received devastating news from Irish polar explorer Francis Leopold McClintock: A written account from the Franklin expedition had been found, and the document reported that Sir John had died on June 11, 1847.
Sophia Cracroft accompanied Lady Franklin on the trip. Soon after arriving in the Islands, she wrote a letter to friends in England describing a message from King Kamehameha IV, Alexander Liholiho, and his wife, Queen Emma: “The King and Queen were out of town for a few miles, but the news of my aunt’s arrival soon reached them, and in the afternoon, there walked up to the veranda a young man whom Mr. Wyllie [the Hawaiian kingdom’s foreign minister] introduced as the King’s Aide-de-Camp, Mr. Kalakaua. … He had been commanded by the King to present his respects to my Aunt; to express his great pleasure and that of the Queen at her visit to his Kingdom and his desire to make it as agreeable as possible, and say that the Queen desired to place her carriage at my Aunt’s disposal during her stay.”
The next day, Lady Franklin and Cracroft met with Hawai‘i’s king and queen. “The King,” Cracroft wrote, “spoke of his love for England and the obligation he felt for the kindness and attention he and his brother received there.” The king mentioned to Lady Franklin his “great desire” for an English clergyman to serve in Hawai‘i and added he had already written a letter to Queen Victoria to ask her to help. He also showed his visitors some of his most prized possessions, ‘ahu ‘ula, Hawaiian feather cloaks. Of the largest cloak, Cracroft wrote, “As he shewed this, my Aunt asked if he would do her the favour to put it on, which he did most readily, saying,‘This is the first time since my coronation.’ He is tall and the cloak fell considerably below his knees—the most magnificent garment it was.”
Colonel David Kalākaua, who would go on to become Hawai‘i’s last king, was assigned to be the British visitors’ guide on Hawai‘i Island. They visited Halema‘uma‘u caldera at Kīlauea, which Cracroft de-scribed as “the grandest volcano in the world,” and then headed south, through Ka‘ū. They made numerous stops along the way and spent an unplanned five days at Kā‘iliki‘i beach waiting for a boat, a stay Cracroft described as “perfectly delightful.” Almost reluctantly, they finally sailed north to their next destination, Kealakekua bay.
The visit to Kealakekua bay reminded Lady Franklin of her own husband’s fate. At the time of his death in 1779, Captain James Cook was considered Great Britain’s greatest explorer. Both Cook and Sir John had served during wartime and become household names due to their accounts of their scientific expeditions. Both had died while leading an expedition to search for the Northwest Passage. Lady Franklin and her niece sailed on a double-hulled canoe sent by the island’s governor, Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani, and were able to visit the exact spot where Cook had been killed. As always, Kalākaua had arranged for his visitors to receive impeccable hospitality.
“Here a clean little house was given to us, and we were able to breakfast, after which we went to the spot on the beach where he fell and died,” wrote Cracroft. They learned of efforts to build a permanent monument to Cook, and months later Ka Hae Hawaii reported that Lady Franklin had made a generous donation.
After their stay at Kealakekua, the visitors traveled north to Kailua-Kona, where on May 8 they were met by Princess Ruth, who offered them exclusive use of her private home, Hulihe‘e Palace. “She is a very great lady and looks as if she is fully conscious of it,” wrote Cracroft.
When Franklin and Cracroft returned to Honolulu, the king held a state dinner to honor Lady Franklin. The Englishwomen continued to be astonished by the hospitality shown them. “I feel that I shall quite fail in giving you a true idea of this country: it is very far in advance of anything we, at least, had anticipated. We are loaded at kindness and attention from the King and Queen, to whom I can assure you we are becoming sincerely attached as friends,” wrote Cracroft on May 25.
On June 24, shortly before their departure from Hawai‘i, the king presented Lady Franklin with the highest honor he could give her. “Our last day in Honolulu. We went to the palace to say goodbye. … The Queen kissed us with her eyes full of tears, evidently trying to shew them as little as possible. The King … paid my aunt the high compliment of giving her one of the feather capes he had shewn us that first day. He placed it on her shoulders as an insignia of the highest rank,” wrote Cracroft.
The next day, Lady Franklin and Cracroft boarded their ship to return to San Francisco. Visiting them before their departure were the king, Prince Lot Kamehameha, Kalākaua and Wyllie. As a parting gift, the king also gave Lady Franklin a small silk Hawaiian flag.
Upon their return home, Lady Franklin launched her efforts to support the establishment of the Anglican Church in Hawai‘i. She purchased two baptismal fonts to be sent to the Islands: One to be used in public for the baptism of the king and queen’s young son, Prince Albert, the other for a private ceremony in which the queen would be baptized. She also had numerous meetings with Thomas Staley, who would soon be consecrated as the first Anglican bishop of Honolulu.
On August 27, 1862, the king and queen suffered a terrible loss. Just days after their four-year-old son Prince Albert had been baptized in the Anglican faith, he died of what may have been meningitis or appendicitis. Fifteen months later the grief-stricken king died after an asthma attack.
After these tragic losses, some believe, the bond between the now-widowed Queen Emma and Lady Franklin became even stronger. In 1865 Queen Emma traveled to England to visit Lady Franklin and generate support for the Anglican Church in Hawai‘i. As Lady Franklin’s letter to the queen records, Franklin was optimistic. “I feel persuaded that from one end of England to the other, you will be received with respect and interest and I shall be greatly disappointed indeed if much permanent good to the Church in Hawaii be not the happy result.”
The highlight of Queen Emma’s visit to England was her audience at Windsor Castle with Queen Victoria, who had been the godmother of Prince Albert. Queen Victoria wrote of the meeting: “After luncheon, I received Queen Emma … and nothing could be nicer or more dignified than her manner. … I took her into the White Drawing room, where I asked her to sit down next to me on the sofa. She was very moved when I spoke to her about her great misfortune of losing her only child.”
Soon after, Queen Emma left Great Britain to tour continental Europe. She returned to London in July 1866 to stay at Lady Franklin’s home and then set sail for home. Not content to say goodbye in London, Lady Franklin and Sophia Cracroft accompanied Queen Emma all the way to the dock—in Ireland.
In the late 1860s, while Lady Franklin had accepted that Sir John was dead, she still held out hope that some of his men had survived. In 1870 she traveled to America to meet the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall, who had spent five years in the Arctic looking—unsuccessfully—for any signs of Sir John’s ships or his men.
In 1875 Lady Franklin financed one more mission to the Arctic. Its goals were to discover further records of the Franklin expedition and sail through the Northwest Passage. The Pandora set sail on June 25. Just three weeks later Lady Franklin died at the age of 83. The Pandora’s mission was unsuccessful, and the ship returned home in October.
While the area near Canada’s King William Island and the Adelaide Peninsula continued to be scoured for clues, the fate of Franklin’s lost ships long remained a mystery. Eventually, some realized that the oral traditions of the Inuit held valuable clues. Inuit historian Louie Kamookak spent more than thirty years interviewing Inuit elders and found a remarkable consistency among their accounts. He was eager to help when a consortium of Canadian government and nonprofit organizations recently renewed a search for the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition.
Using the latest in technology, including underwater imaging, and assisted by the oral histories of the Inuit, Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus, was discovered on September 7, 2014. Two years later, on September 12, 2016, Canadian researchers announced that they had discovered Franklin’s HMS Terror. The ships are about thirty miles apart and far from their last reported positions. Both have been described as being in remarkable shape. HH