England, who ended day one 341-5, were indebted to Bell for a determined and classy 143 that contributed to two century stands and resurrected an innings that had earlier threatened to disintegrate.
The tourists were in turmoil at 34-3 after opener Jonathan Trott went for a duck on his first Test outing for more than a year, captain Alastair Cook managed just 11 and Gary Ballance departed for one run fewer.
But Bell, in his first match as deputy to Cook, played a captain’s innings to put on 177 with Joe Root, who amassed 83, and then 130 with Ben Stokes, who ended the day 71 not out.
“It was a tricky first morning up until lunch. They bowled well for two hours, but the wicket dried out a bit,” said Bell, who fell to Kemar Roach in the penultimate over.
“I wanted them to get me out, not give my wicket away. It’s nice to be in this position at the close. There’s plenty more to do and kick on. Ben Stokes has played well. Hopefully he can go on and get a big hundred for us. We’ve got Jos Buttler to come. It’s going to be aggressive cricket.”
Incoming England and Wales Cricket Board chairman Colin Graves quipped last month that there would be “some enquiries” if the tourists did not dispense with a West Indies side he haughtily labelled “mediocre”.
With the ECB board already rattled by managing director Paul Downton’s dismissal last week, some in the England camp must have fidgeted nervously as the hosts enjoyed a rollicking start.
Trott lasted just three balls before poking at an outswinger from paceman Jerome Taylor, allowing Darren Bravo to catch the Warwickshire batsman at first slip.
Cook, also in dire need of runs, fared little better. Moments after hitting Roach for a fine four, he departed to the same bowler, having allowed an inviting gap between bat and pad.
It left England floundering on 22-2, but it was soon 34-3 when Ballance prodded at Jason Holder and too was caught by Bravo at slip.
Rain afforded England respite before Bell and Root steadied the innings. Their 177-run stand swung momentum back England’s way and finally ended when Root dragged Taylor’s delivery onto his stumps.
Bell brought up his century – and moved level with Geoffrey Boycott, Colin Cowdrey and Wally Hammond as England’s third most prolific hundred-hitter – when he guided Marlon Samuels between wicketkeeper and slip, and Stokes increased the tempo with an exciting cameo.