Bell reached his 22nd Test hundred in 194 balls, providing the innings with a backbone that had been absent when the top order collapsed.
The tourists slumped to 34-3 after the returning Jonathan Trott, captain Alastair Cook and Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance all departed early but Bell found a willing accomplice in Sheffield-born Joe Root, as the pair added 177 for the fourth wicket.
They took the sting out of the situation and seemed to be on course for twin tons until Root dragged Jerome Taylor on for 83.
But Bell pressed on towards three figures, wearing down the home attack with calm authority and cashing in when they wavered.
After a long wait in the ninetes Bell got a thick edge on a Marlon Samuels delivery but saw the ball evade slip and race to the ropes.
The 33-year-old celebrated with unusual vigour, pumping his first and kissing the badge on his helmet, with England 248-4.
West Indies captain Denesh Ramdin won the toss and sent England in, a bold move but one that paid instant dividends.
There was an inauspicious start from the new opening partnership of Cook and Trott, the latter restored to the side 18 months after leaving the 2013-14 Ashes Tour early with a career-threatening bout of situational anxiety.His recall, ahead of Yorkshire’s Adam Lyth, brought him the high of a 50th Test cap and the low of a three-ball duck.
Taylor had Trott held at slip with a searching delivery that might have been left but instead sailed to Darren Bravo off the outside edge.
Cook could have fallen in the following over but his nick fell a fraction short of Bravo as wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin declined to go for the chance.
Cook, without a Test hundred in almost two years, gave a brief reminder of his class when he eased Kemar Roach through the covers for four but the bowler exacted swift revenge.
Three balls later he located a gap between bat and pad, parting the England captain’s stumps before wheeling away in celebration.
It was a messy dismissal for Cook, whose search for a major score continues.
Ballance is also struggling, laid low by a mutually unhelpful stint in the one-day side which saw him dropped before England’s premature exit from the recent World Cup was confirmed after defeat to Bangladesh in the group stages.
The sure-footed batsman who scored three Test centuries last summer was replaced here by a tentative imitator, scraping 10 runs in 46 balls.
He was clearly frustrated at his slow progress, throwing his arms a wider delivery from Jason Holder and handing Bravo his second catch of the day.
The hosts were firing but soon hit a roadblock in Bell and Root.
The former took 20 balls to get off the mark, but did so with a sweetly struck cover drive, and Root flashed a half chance past Benn at backward point on one.
At lunch England were 49-3 but the afternoon session was decisively England’s, containing 118 runs and no further wickets.
Bell was leaving judiciously and looked in full control when hitting square of the wicket.
Root, meanwhile, picked Benn as the weak link in the attack.
The tall spinner managed to beat the bat a couple of times in the morning session but too often he was guilty of missing his length, allowing Root to cash in. In the 33rd over, Taylor’s ninth, Bell saw a thick edge race to the third man boundary – a moral victory for the paceman but four runs for England’s vice-captain.
The duo brought up the 50 partnership in exactly 100 balls and Bell’s own half-century followed, Benn dropping short again and getting whipped through mid-wicket.
Root reached 50 with an effortless punch down the ground from Holder and when Ramdin asked Roach and Taylor to return to the attack, they were considerably less menacing.
Ramdin turned to the gentle spin of Marlon Samuels after tea and he should have been celebrating the wicket of Root in his third over.
It was a short delivery, asking to be dispatched, but Root, on 71, turned it straight to mid-wicket where Benn dropped a clanger.
Samuels’s head dropped as his next over went for 13, including a steepling six from Bell over long-off. Root added 12 more before his number was up, dragging the ball into his stumps after Taylor found a hint of extra bounce outside off.
Bell was playing with greater control and moved through the nineties methodically while new man Ben Stokes dashed to 20 at almost a run per ball.
Bell’s hundred came from a rare lapse, Samuels finding the outside edge only to see the trajectory wrong foot Bravo stood at slip.
He was eventually dismissed for 143 when Ramdin took a smart catch off Roach.