Francis Bell arrived in New Zealand in 1843. He settled at Nelson, where he worked for the New Zealand Company. Between 1847 and 1848 he was involved in purchasing land at Wairarapa, Taranaki and Waitohi (Picton). He did not acquire any land at Wairarapa, but was more successful in Taranaki and the South Island.
Bell was also involved in politics, and entered the House of Representatives in 1855. The following year, having resigned from Parliament, he was made a Land Claims Commissioner. His task was to sort out land grants to settlers who had purchased before the Treaty, and land reserves for Maori who had sold. Bell's policies were based on his sympathy with the settlers. As a result, much Maori discontent over land sales remained.
In 1860 Bell returned to Parliament. Because of his fluency in the Maori language, and his knowledge of Maori land issues, he also became an advisor to Governor Browne. He staunchly supported the Waitara purchase, which led to the Taranaki war. In 1862 he became Minister of Native Affairs. His administration has been described as 'not particularly efficient or vigorous', although he did support the 1862 forerunner of the Native Land Court. This body later promoted the sale of much remaining Maori land in the North Island. In 1863 Bell supported Grey's invasion of the Waikato, and recruited military settlers in Australia.
Bell later held a number of political offices. In 1880 he investigated disputes over Taranaki land. Despite his earlier role in the lead-up to the Taranaki war and confiscations, he recommended that substantial areas of land be returned to Maori. He was knighted in 1881.